NAPLES, Florida — When founding what is now the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab ( J-PAL) in 2003, three Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors named Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Sendhil Mullainathan sought to combat global poverty in a manner that was, until then, largely unexplored. They had a vision of tackling the issue by using innovative techniques of scientific study to influence policymaking. The impact of that vision has been enormously effective to date, reaching more than 540 million people.
J-PAL’s Scientific Methods
The research conducted by J-PAL’s 224 affiliate professors at 91 universities is based on the reasoning that policies yield the most successful results when backed by scientific proof rather than good intentions alone. This ensures governments and organizations are “putting our limited resources to the best of use,” J-PAL Global’s senior policy associate Margaret Andersen told The Borgen Project in an interview.
Randomized impact evaluations — also called randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are the driving force behind J-PAL’s work. The organization uses these evaluations to empirically measure the impact of a program’s efficacy in improving such things as teaching styles, employment opportunities and generally reducing poverty rates over an extended period of time.
Researchers gather data by conducting surveys in an area of interest, and subsequently, present the results in a way that will motivate leaders to act. J-PAL makes this research accessible to people with little to no background in economics or statistics.
RCTs in Action
Millions of children around the world struggle to receive an adequate education. Policymakers and J-PAL affiliates attempt to determine the root of the problem. Through the research, “we were still seeing a massive learning crisis,” Andersen said. “We’re seeing people going to school, but they’re not really learning.” J-PAL affiliates felt the need to investigate the dilemma further.
Pratham, an Indian nongovernmental organization, launched the program Teaching at the Right Level, or TaRL. J-PAL partnered with Pratham to find the program effective using RCTs. TaRL aims to assess children’s level of proficiency in reading and arithmetic, grouping them by level instead of grades while advancing students to higher levels as they make progress.
J-PAL researchers examined the TaRL approach extensively, conducting six randomized evaluations beginning in 2001. Today, the program has helped millions of children in several countries improve their reading and arithmetic. The program continues expanding to reach more students. “This is a big success story,” Andersen said, “looking at the mechanisms behind why students weren’t learning and finding something that can be effective, and then trying to apply that mechanism in different contexts.”
J-PAL’s Jobs and Opportunity Initiative
J-PAL’s Jobs and Opportunity Initiative team funds randomized strategies evaluations in a quest to improve employment outcomes. Focus areas of the initiative’s research agenda include studying the impact of skills training programs, assisting people with finding employment and reducing discrimination in hiring processes.
COVID-19 lockdown measures significantly impacted informal economy workers everywhere, but particularly those in developing countries. To assist people in need, the jobs initiative, “like many J-PAL initiatives, opened up an off-cycle COVID response (request for proposal) round in March 2020 when COVID hit,” Andersen said.
“We opened this because we were really hoping to be able to fund timely and policy-relevant research related to improving livelihood outcomes amidst the pandemic,” she said. One initiative-funded proposal is a study that took place between April and August last year in a low-income suburb of Nairobi, Kenya known as Dandora.
JOI’s Work in Dandora
Associate professors Wyatt Brooks, Kevin Donovan and Terence Johnson led the Nairobi project, which they dubbed “Cash Transfers During a Pandemic: Evidence from a Kenyan Slum.” It gauged the impact of cash transfers on female entrepreneurs there. Pandemic restrictions forced the team to pivot from the usual in-person surveys to phone surveys with the participating women. The results were predominantly positive.
“The researchers found that … profit inventory spending and food expenditures all increased for business owners that received this cash transfer,” Andersen said. The program also helped previously closed businesses to reopen.
Andersen pointed out a detail of the results she believes policymakers should take into account: With businesses reopening, the researchers found that participants’ utilization of the cash transfers toward personal protective equipment increased solely among those who perceived COVID-19 to be a major health risk.
“I think it’s just really interesting to see (that) there are ways for us to support the livelihoods of individuals, especially these individuals in the informal economy,” Andersen said. “But we also need to balance that with public health concerns amidst a global pandemic.”
The initiative’s findings in this study have been widely discussed. The team hosted a webinar sharing their results with other researchers who published an opinion piece on the study in several major Kenyan news outlets.
J-PAL has secured funding for a number of new initiatives, among them the King Climate Action Initiative. The organization received a $25 million gift from King Philanthropies in July 2020 to study programs that aim to help at least 25 million people in the next 10 years left most susceptible to the effects of climate change due to poverty.
J-PAL’s Jobs and Opportunity Initiative is now inviting resident African scholars to apply for funding “to study programs and policies in their own context,” Andersen explained. Additionally, a branch of the initiative was organized in Brazil, which will delve into core questions in the country. “I’m excited to expand our support of governments and scaling up effective programs, and then really applying the research and having it reach many people,” Andersen said.
Already an organization with a vast and meaningful impact, J-PAL will continue to lift people out of poverty, influencing policies through rigorous scientific research in the years to come.
– Safira Schiowitz