Today I discovered yet another reason why I love where I work. J-PAL (Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab) combines three of the topics that are dearest to my heart (and most intriguing to my brain) – innovation, research, and social responsibility. It is, in fact, a research organization based on randomized small-scale trials of the effectiveness of different strategies to eliminate or reduce poverty. With this research, J-PAL works to innovate and better the results for a variety of NGOs and other similar organizations. The research itself is done on a small scale in association with specific aid programs in order to provide clear scientific results. In addition, over the long term, J-PAL hopes to draw conclusions from its broad base of research initiatives that can be applied to newly deveoloping programs.
Why do I think this project is so awesome? First off, because it’s obviously well grounded in science. Often it is difficult to quantify the results of a particular aid program, which means that programs rely on individual success stories and public opinion rather than hard data. That reliance makes aid programs into fads, quickly funded, quickly popular, and generally short-lived. It handicaps the ability of programs to capitalize on past mistakes and truly develop as the local aspects of a widespread problem are better understood, or as needs change. It keeps donors unsure of tangible results and program leaders unsure of success.
The problem with getting hard data is threefold. First, the short lifespan of most programs does not allow a program to grow and learn from the data they might have on hand. Second, the competition of a number of programs for the same pool of resources often insures that those programs involved with similar populations are not pooling the data they do have. Third, as most aid programs have a cap on the amount of funding that can be diverted to administrative tasks, rather than to direct aid costs (which is as it should be), most programs have limited staff available to track that data at all, let alone model it in a way that would be valuable to modifying those programs. J-PAL takes care of all of that.
There are few things that I love more than innovation that makes sense – it just seems fitting somehow. And J-PAL definitely seems to be that kind of organization that just fits into the right place at the right time. But when a leader in that innovative organization is as knowledgeable and interesting to read as Esther Duflo, it makes that feeling of ‘ahh’ even better.