Simple measures can boost war on poverty

When it comes to helping the poor, people react in different ways. There are different schools of thought that drive the development policy with regard to assisting third world countries. Over the years, adaptation of policy to fight poverty has gone through a metamorphosis. From the London School of thought, which puts more emphasis on aid as an investment to reduce poverty to the Massachusetts School, which talks of trade instead of aid, the development practitioners had to constantly adapt to the production of new terminologies to understand how best to help.

However, there is a greater response when the requested support is affordable and easier to understand. A friend recently narrated the following example: Imagine if you are shown a leaflet full of statistics about global poverty. Nothing but misery and the leaflet explains how more than 70 per cent of the population lives on less than Sh200 a day. Yet another person comes with a leaflet sharing the story of a young orphaned girl who needs help to go to school. “Which of the two fliers appeals to a donor and warrants support?”

“Of course the second one,” I answered. “You see,” he told me, “people are more prone to support a clear need like the case of the young girl whose needs can be managed easily”. This is based on the thoughts of the winners of the Nobel Prize in economics Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee. Their book, Poor Economics is critical on issues of statistics as a basis for inducing people to donate to the poor. In as much as data has become the highest-rated instrument for decision making, the duo – a married couple - was actually recognised for suggesting that a concrete example is more useful than a continuum of figures and data.

Duflo and Banerjee carried out research in India, where they studied the impact of capital investment in schools versus offering softer inputs. They also looked at a change in policy on ways of improving the health of small children by de-worming them.

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This is quite significant, especially with the roll-out of universal health coverage (UHC) still stuck in the piloting stage. These lessons on how “small is big” can help ensure the roll-out is more impactful. In fact, critics of UHC say it lays emphasis on big things (curative for cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure) and ignores the small things (preventive) like insisting on exercise, drinking clean water and eating healthy.

In India, for example, it was recommended that schools get additional computers and textbooks to improve performance. A random study showed in cases where support was given to children left behind in class, additional tutorials had more impact in improving performance than providing them with additional teaching materials such as textbooks and computers.

Children who perform poorly generally bring educational standards down, therefore, more emphasis on teaching them with extra support is more effective than giving additional textbooks to the entire school. As for the deworming, once again a change in perception by introducing small changes drastically changed the behaviour and health of many more children.

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According to the study, for many years deworming pills were given at a subsidised price. Parents earning less than a dollar a day could not access deworming pills. Of course the price looks negligible, but many parents still could not afford the pills. But once the fee for the drug was waived, almost all children accessed the medicine. Yet the Government did not really have to invest much, since the cost of prevention is much lower than treatment.

In addition to the example of deworming pills, the Nobel Laureates also saw better ways of improving rates of vaccination in India. In their study, they found that little changes in approach influenced how people react to government services. When mobile vaccination teams went to convenient places and staff were always on site, the rate of vaccination went up.

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The number of children who were vaccinated went up drastically when in addition to accessibility, parents were given a bag of lentils to induce them more. In this journey of understanding how best to undertake development policies that have the best impact, there are many stories about private-public partnership or sustainable approach and terminologies such as resilience. All that is being advocated is a little tweak on policy. Also, one more lesson learned from the Poor Economics is that large investments are not always necessary to fight poverty. Good governance and investing in preventive approach has more impact than large-scale investments where the impacts are hardly felt.

Mr Guleid is the CEO of Frontier Counties Development Council. [email protected]

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Poverty