Sunday, November 4, 2012

What About Anthropology and the Like?

Like Pai, I found myself surprisingly convinced by Easterly's arguments and approach -- he takes a serious, much-needed look at the history and current state of foreign aid, and uses a compelling combination of anecdotes and statistics (any good story needs both).  Furthermore, as much as he self-consciously qualifies his analyses and suggestions as Not The Answer, Easterly brings much insight and critical conversations to the forefront.  Whether or not the specific projects mentioned at the end of the book pass the required rigorous evaluation, most of his proposed paths couldn't be worse than the results per dollar that the Big Plans have given us so far.

One piece that I thought Easterly could have emphasized more, however, is the complicated issues that need to be navigated in terms of social norms, that will heavily affect the implications of any aid project.  Implicit in his demand that aid efforts be subject to statistical analysis (as rigorous as possible) is the idea that these projects must actually work.  I would argue that the statistical analysis, which can come after a test implementation, is essential, but is also the epitome of the economist's approach.  What can we learn, before implementation, from the fields of anthropology and the like? How can we use our understanding and theories about social constructions and norms in order to assess, before we test, which projects might have the biggest impact?

Last semester, Connie Duckworth, a CMC parent and founder and CEO of ARZU came to speak at the Athenaeum.  The focus of her talk was on how she has implemented effective aid programs, primarily in Afghanistan.  (She definitely counts as a Searcher!)  The most impressive element of her approach to me, however, was the way in which her projects understood and worked with, not against, the social norms of the people she was trying to help.  Giving Afghani women the resources to weave allowed them to help bring income into the family, without having to first break the gender norms that prevent women from most holding most occupations.  Weaving is a traditionally appropriate activity for women, but through the program of Afghans for Afghans, these women can help the financial situations of their families while also coming to be seen as potential bread-winners -- working with the social norms, ARZU can both institute realistic programs for helping people, and even slowly change the norms. I was impressed.  The statistical analysis that Easterly so strongly emphasizes, I believe, could be well complemented by increased on-the-ground, subjective understanding of the environments in which these people live.

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