The interesting question in development is not whether aid works or does not work. Not surprisingly, the answer is that some aid works and some doesn’t. A more interesting question is: what kind of aid works best?
Nick Kristof has a good article (if a little simplified) in the New York Times today about randomized trials, which he describes as ‘the hottest thing in the fight against poverty’. This new wave of rigorous evidence about impact is helping us to understand which policies and programmes in developing countries work well (whoever pays for them) and which do not.
I especially enjoyed his digression about the importance of economists:
When I was in college, I majored in political science. But if I were going through college today, I’d major in economics. It possesses a rigor that other fields in the social sciences don’t — and often greater relevance as well. That’s why economists are shaping national debates about everything from health care to poverty, while political scientists often seem increasingly theoretical and irrelevant.
Economists are successful imperialists of other disciplines because they have better tools. Educators know far more about schools, but economists have used rigorous statistical methods to answer basic questions: Does having a graduate degree make one a better teacher? (Probably not.) Is money better spent on smaller classes or on better teachers? (Probably better teachers.)
I suspect not everybody will agree with this.