This book will not tell you whether aid is good or bad, but it will say whether particular instances of aid did some good or not. We cannot pronounce on the efficacy of democracy, but we do have something to say about whether democracy could be made more effective in rural Indonesia by changing the way it is organized on the ground, and so on.In other words, as I understand it, they reject the idea that economics or economists or anyone else can pronounce generally on whether democracy or aid or free markets or any other general solution to poverty works, but they do think that people can identify what works and what does not in particular cases. This sounds right, but it suggests a very modest role for economics as a science. (I say 'suggests' because I still have a lot to learn about all this.)
Two of the first readings required by the course are blog posts for and against the idea that Jeff Sachs' belief in giving away insecticide-treated mosquito nets (ITNs) for free has been vindicated by empirical evidence. The first says that:
A new randomized experiment carried out by Jessica Cohen and Pascaline Dupas reaches striking and unambiguous results:
Taken together, our results suggest that cost-sharing ITN programs may have difficulty reaching a large fraction of the populations most vulnerable to malaria. [...] We also find that, for the full range of parameter values, the number of infant lives saved is highest when ITNs are distributed free.The second counters that:
Cohen and Dupas have confirmed that demand curves slope downward. More than that, they have found that there is residual demand for bed nets from mothers with new babies in a community that has benefited from extensive demand promotion activities in conjunction with a social marketing campaign for bed nets, which are very highly subsidized, but not free.In other words, even "striking and unambiguous results" produce next to nothing that can be generalized with confidence. What is found to happen in one region in Kenya is found to happen in that region in Kenya, given the particular circumstances prevailing at the time. Things might be different even in that region at another time.
I don't mean that these findings are worthless. They are at least suggestive, and might eventually add up to more than that. But despite all the praise, my first impression (more impressions coming soon!) is that this cutting-edge work in economics really confirms a lot of the main points made by people generally regarded as anti-economics or anti-social science, especially the point that human life is too complicated and affected by too many variables for anyone to be able to identify universal laws of human behavior.