When I was working in Bolivia, I remember learning about a huge call for proposals for projects in the lowland area of the country.  Thanks to good relations with the communities in that area, we went to meet the President of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) to see whether we could partner with them for a forestry project that focused on the generation of income through natural resource stewardship.  This Confederation represents some of the poorest people in Bolivia – oftentimes their constituents do not have land titles and have little capacity to farm the lands they live on.

At the meeting, we went through painstaking efforts to describe the donor criteria to ensure a common understanding about what was achievable and manage expectations.  We certainly wanted this community to benefit from this opportunity.  After all our efforts, the President turned to us and nonchalantly stated that they would only be interested in partnering if we could provide them with a radio station – something that was entirely outside the realm of the project criteria.

How did this community come to this conclusion?  Why would a radio station be more valuable than capacity building in sustainable harvesting of agricultural products that would increase individual incomes significantly?  I was flabbergasted and couldn’t understand the rationale behind the request.

Understanding how the world’s poor make decisions is the subject of Poor Economics by Abhijit Banerjee and Ester Duflo. poor economicsIn the book, they approach the most important factors in the lives of the poor: heath, education, insurance, loans, job security.  This would be nothing new, as it is how traditional development is structured, but this book is different in two ways.  First it allowed flexibility in framing questions based on what the poor really thought, not what development workers think would work best on their behalf (something I could have used before my meeting with the President of the CIDOB!).  The authors want to understand how poor people actually make decisions, even if it is a counterintuitive or complicated process.  How did they obtain this information?  Through many many many hours of interviews with poor people who struggle to make ends meet every day.  All of their projects are structured as randomized control trials in order to make the findings as statistically relevant as possible.

The second aspect I appreciated is that the recommendations of this book are based on the vision poor people themselves hold, rather than an imposed vision.  The suggestions are based on data, rather than on ideological extrapolations and theories that make assumptions about human behaviour.

This book reminded me that we must force ourselves to understand the logic of the choices the poor make without a value judgment attached to it.  Now, Banerjee and Duflo are delivering a course through EdX, a massive open online course (MOOC) platform founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University to offer online university-level courses in a wide range of disciplines to a worldwide audience at no charge.  The course is entitled The Challenges of Global Poverty and is based on the findings of their book.

This is an interesting experiment in the democratization of education, and reading the discussion forums where people introduce themselves, you get a sense that representatives from the whole world are taking the course.  This experiment also reinforces the idea that we have discussed in previous blog posts, about the increasing “professionalization” of international development workers.

Have you read Poor Economics?  Do you have a review you would like to share?  Did any of the findings in the book surprise you?

Have you had experience with MOOCs either personally or in international development projects?  Is this format of education truly accessible in underdeveloped countries?  Will these types of courses assist in creating a stronger cadre of international development workers?

Do you have thoughts or examples about the challenges of understanding how the poor make decisions?  We would love to hear your stories.