SEATTLE — When people donate money to nonprofits, they want to know that their money is being used well. The same goes for governments allocating funds for international aid. While money intended for alleviating poverty is rarely wasted, there are many different ways the funds could be used to help those in need. Sometimes, it is not clear what program the money should be put toward. Thankfully, there are organizations like Innovations for Poverty Action dedicated to researching how to best help the poor.
Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) finds evidence of what works to help the poor and helps turn that evidence into better programs and policies. Working with top researchers in the field, IPA conducts randomized controlled trials. This method allows researchers to isolate the effects of a program from other factors. Researchers will assign participants to separate groups at random. One or more groups, known as “treatment groups” receive a program, and another group functions as the “control” group.
IPA develops strong connections in the countries in which it conducts research. These partnerships and a knowledge of local contexts help make their research projects successful. Its teams operate in 20 countries with various NGOs and government institutions. IPA has more than 1,000 research staff who conduct the research on the ground. Studies can last as long a few months to years or even decades.
Jeffrey Mosenkis, a policy communications manager at IPA, told the Borgen Project that one IPA study, in particular, strikes him as particularly influential: a study on school-based deworming conducted from 1998 to 2001.
The study took place within 75 primary schools in Busia, Kenya. The school-based deworming reduced serious worm infections by 61 percent and reduced school absenteeism by 25 percent. The treatment only cost $0.60 per child per year. A long-term follow-up study found that the deworming increased the rate that girls passed their secondary school entrance exam by 9.6 percent and increased the likelihood that men would work in high-wage jobs or engage in entrepreneurial activities.
School-based deworming campaigns have expanded into Ethiopia, India and Kenya, reaching more than 200 million children. Since then, researchers have also discovered that treating a kid for parasites also helps their siblings do better in school.
“I think it was also an eye-opener for the field of development,” Mosenkis said, “because it showed that one of the most cost-effective education interventions was actually a health intervention, and helped sparked interest in using data and evidence to find the most effective programs, which might not be the ones we’d normally think of.”
Other important studies conducted by IPA include improving financial behavior with a tablet app, improving math skills in Paraguay, reducing child mortality with health promoters in Uganda and using mobile technology to fight malaria. These and other studies are conducted all over the globe. Sometimes the exact location of the study can present unique challenges.
“It’s not just the country but the local area,” Mosenkis said, “how good the infrastructure, like the roads, are, or electricity and phone access; that makes more of a difference in our day-to-day work collecting data than the national picture.”
IPA was started by Dean Karlan after traveling throughout Latin American before grad school. What began originally as an idea pitched by Karlan to his graduate advisers at MIT became a nonprofit bridging the gap between academia and development policy in practice.
Innovations for Poverty Action plans to continue building on what it has already achieved. The plan is to continue creating useful evidence to answer the questions of decisionmakers at the front lines of development. The work of IPA has been and will continue to be instrumental in improving the lives of the global poor.
– Brock Hall