Professor Chad Syverson talked with economist Dean Karlan about the application of academic research to alleviate global poverty.
Syverson: Was it your original intent to use Innovations for Poverty Action as a way to do academic research in action, to not just do field work in economics, but actually apply what you learn to help people in the process?
Karlan: That's exactly right. The intent was about taking the stuff after the research to see that it gets put into action. There are two approaches. One is incubation: it may be that something works but isn't quite ready to be used on a larger scale - we need to learn more about operations. The other approach is to impart the knowledge through dissemination and technical assistance.
Syverson: What else did you learn at Booth that has served you and your organization?
Karlan: The research I did at Booth wasn't related to IPA but it set me on the right path. Economists are trained to think about the theory. It's not our competitive advantage to manage field research. There was no institutional knowledge being gained about how to manage a research project well every time. Whoever was doing it had to reinvent the wheel each time. At IPA, I built that infrastructure in order to get that institutional knowledge and to maintain our quality. We need to make sure that we are doing high quality research. We need people who are committed to the research, not just new people rotating in and out all the time. We need middle management, i.e., not professors and lead researchers themselves, but not those right out of undergrad either. We could never have gotten to the scale we are without that high quality research methodology. Booth gave me a nice exposure to organizational and managerial issues that are clearly outside of the training of a professor. I took, for example, accounting classes that proved helpful when engaging with auditors and working to put in accounting systems at IPA. One of the things that attracted me to Booth was the quality of academic research. Getting to know Richard Thaler was critical in shaping my approach to economics. He introduced me to how behavioral economics can help solve real world problems.
Syverson: There are so many initiatives targeting global poverty - government programs, NGOs, nonprofits, foundations, individuals. Is such diversity necessary to adequately address the size and complexity of the problem? Or do these programs get in each other's way?
Karlan: There's no doubt that they're necessary. It's true that not enough attention has been paid to how they interact. We don't have a really good understanding of how one plus one could make five. Or how one plus one can equal one. Understanding these interactions could help explain why some ideas work well in one place and not so well in others. This is why we need more replication of evaluations, and more theory as to why ideas work and why they don't, to test in multiple settings with different competing initiatives underway.
Syverson: How do you measure progress in a problem so huge?
Karlan: The size of the problem makes it easier to measure. You can actually see what you're doing. Given that there are so many choices, what should we really do? We have to base our efforts on good data. When we wanted to know the best way to increase school attendance, researchers at IPA tested almost a dozen places, and found that when intestinal worms are prevalent (which is common in sub-Saharan Africa and many parts of India), then a simple 25-cent deworming pill becomes the most cost effective way of improving school attendance.
Syverson: Do you ever get discouraged?
Karlan: No. No. I wouldn't say I get discouraged. I do think we can do things that will make a difference, that will make things better. But I'm also pragmatic. We are not going to end poverty. Set your bar higher than you are, but still low, and you won't get discouraged. ■
Photo by Jason Smith