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4 examples of strategic ignorance - Part 1

Published by: Francisco Mejía

In a previous blog, we explored the positive impact of impact evaluations and impact evaluation institutional frameworks have had on policy formulation. It is hard to imagine the success of Conditional Cash Transfers, early childhood interventions, massive vaccinations or, more recently, deworming (despite the brouhaha) without the ammunition that hard evidence provided their proponents. A hypothesis on what worked was formulated, and when tested, it did. It was scaled and it improved millions of lives. Sometimes, an international development star is born. Bingo!

Or maybe not.

As most of you, I try to buy organic foods. So I asked myself and Twitterlanders whether there is any, any hard evidence whatsoever that eating organic will be better for me or my family. And it turns out there isn’t much (HT @m_clem). But I play it safe as it took 20 years to learn that aspirins are harmful to children and adolescents (HT @cblatts).

Like me, many governments (developing and developed), multilateral and bilateral institutions, large and small NGOs continue to pour money and resources into areas where there is no evidence or where evidence says there is little or no effect. We believe that the policy has an effect, the reality is that it does not and with flimsy or little evidence, one chugs along. Like the Energizer bunny.

On the other hand, if a policy does have an effect and we believe (for whatever reason) that it has no effect, the result is that we do not invest – or underinvest – in policies with solid evidence as to their effectiveness. We could call it the Type I error in development and it seems as egregious as Type II.

If this is too abstract, let me give you two examples of areas where one would hope that investments and policy reflect the evidence, but do not: migration and investing in young males in urban areas.

In my next blog, I will explore two additional examples where one should expect to see less but doesn’t: technologies in education (HT @felbarrera) and producer certification.

Perhaps they all are what Lant Pritchett (very unfortunately this classic is gated) has called “the strategic commitment to ignorance”.

1.Over 200 million people – 3.1% of the World’s population – migrate from one country to another every year, half of them women. According to the Gallup World Poll, more than 15% of the world’s population wants to migrate, and this can be more than 30% in the poorest countries. Between 10% and 15% migrate illegally at immense cost to themselves, their families (think human trafficking), and the public purse in every country along the migration route. Despite the massive (the trillion dollar question) – yes massive (even when using experimental data that “cleans” wage and GDP per capita comparisons-ungated here) evidence – as to the positive impacts of migration on both sending and recipient populations, restrictive migration policies are still prevalent in all developed countries. If California – during the gold rush in the 1850’s – had been an independent country with strict immigration policies, it certainly would not be what it is today: the 10th largest economy in the world. As the following graphs suggest, a big change in immigration policy is probably not feasible, but we know that even small changes will have immense and positive consequences.

2.Investing in women and girls is rightly at the core of today’s development agenda. The World Bank in its 2012 flagship report identified gender equality as a critical matter for development not only on its own right but also based on the copious evidence on its impact on human welfare and development. More than a merit good, in Musgrave´s terms. We also know that investing in microenterprises is extremely profitable. But it is less known that investing in microenterprises owned by urban males is even more profitable. The evidence casts doubt on the idea that capital (cash) alone will increase the profitability of female owned micro-enterprises, bearing in mind that in kind treatments do have a significant impact on their profitability in Ghana, particularly when the firms were initially more profitable and were past a subsistence level. This evidence is consistently strong in three continents (Mexico, Ghana and Sri Lanka (ungated here). This begs the question as to why there are so few policy efforts specifically directed at reducing barriers to capital for young urban males.

So it seems that for many programs, evidence is a threat to established practice. And as we will see in my next blog, paraphrasing Lant Pritchett, if a Program generates already sufficient support to be adequately funded then knowledge is a danger, too.

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