Ideas to Action:

Independent research for global prosperity

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An aquaculture project in Bar Sauri, Kenya.In development, it's good to try new, innovative ideas-- but even better to know whether or not they work. My guests this week are Michael Clemens, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, and Gabriel Demombynes, a senior economist at the World Bank, based in Nairobi, Kenya. They have written a new paper in which they argue that one very high profile development program, the Millennium Villages Project, isn’t being evaluated in a way that would provide clear evidence of its impacts. They propose a better way to evaluate the project.

Michael begins by explaining to me the Millennium Villages approach. In targeted villages, the program delivers a full package of services covering health, education, sanitation and more. The package is quite substantial-- roughly equal to village residents' own incomes-- and is designed to break villages out of "poverty traps" and put them on a sustainable path towards prosperity. The project began in 2004, and if it works, its founders hope it will serve as a model for development programs in hundreds or thousands of other villages.

The problem, Michael and Gabriel argue, is that the Millennium Villages haven't done enough to demonstrate the specific impacts of the program. On many measures of development, the regions around targeted villages have advanced almost as rapidly as (or, in some cases, even more rapidly than) the targeted villages themselves. Gabriel tells me of his visits to a Millennium Village site in Kenya and to a non-targeted village in the same province (he writes more about these visits on the World Bank's Africa Can blog). The Millennium Village had certain advantages-- a well-stocked, well-staffed health clinic, for example. However, health workers in the non-targeted village reported that vaccination rates, HIV testing, and attended births have all improved in recent years. Thus, the simple fact that the targeted villages have advanced does not demonstrate to what extent the Millennium Villages approach is responsible for those improvements.

In their paper, Michael and Gabriel lay out an alternative evaluation strategy that could provide more robust evidence of the Millennium Villages’ true impact. “It is absolutely possible, at low cost… [to make] the evaluation much more rigorous and get a much better idea of whether this bold and very interesting initiative should be scaled up,” says Michael.

Listen to the Wonkcast to hear our full conversation. Have something to add? Ideas for future interviews? Post a comment below, or send me an email. If you use iTunes, you can subscribe to get new episodes delivered straight to your computer every week.

My thanks to Wren Elhai for his very able production assistance on the Wonkcast recording and for drafting this blog post.