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Results’ Agenda and Economists

Eliana Cardoso's picture

In the book, The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen motivates the discussion on the importance of processes and responsibilities by relying on an example. In the Gita (part of the Mahabharata), on the eve of the crucial battle episode in the epic, Arjuna expresses his doubts about leading the fight which will result in so much killing. Lord Krishna, tells him that he, Arjuna, must perform his duty, that is, to fight. And to fight, irrespective of the consequences.

Krishna’s blessing of the demands of duty is meant to win the argument from a religious perspective. But most of us would share Arjuna’s concerns about the fact that, if the war were to occur, with him leading the charge on the side of justice and propriety, many people would get killed. He himself would be doing a lot of the killing, often of people for whom he had affection.

Arjuna’s dilemma goes well beyond the process-independent view of consequences. Like him, most of us believe that an appropriate understanding of social realization has to take the comprehensive form of a process-inclusive broad account.

It is well known that aid can be successful in reducing poverty in countries with sound institutions (such as the absence of corruption, respect for the rule of law, social safety nets, and sound macro policies). In these countries, every dollar of foreign aid attracts more dollars of investment, because aid helps to provide public services that investors need, such as education and infrastructure.

But large aid flows to countries that lack sound policies and institutions have little or no impact. Furthermore there is little evidence to support the notion that an inadequate policy and institutional environment can be overcome by targeting assistance to specific activities - such as health or education. This is because like other money, aid dollars are fungible.

Yet, projects can be valuable if they open the way for systemic change throughout an entire sector. Unfortunately, the aid system is still not used to evaluate projects in terms of the impact they have on poverty and other objectives it is supposed to achieve.

Impact evaluation tries to measure the outcomes of a program intervention in isolation of other possible factors. It tries to answer questions such as: Is the intervention producing the intended benefits and what was the overall impact on the population? Could the program or project be better designed to achieve the intended outcomes? Are resources being spent efficiently?

Impact evaluation is expensive, time consuming and technically complex. Many evaluations have also been criticized because the results come too late, do not answer the right questions, or were not carried out with sufficient analytical rigor. Yet, with proper and early planning, a rigorous evaluation can be powerful in assessing how effective programs are.

If our work is to be judged by the results we achieve, we must monitor our programs and link results to actions. A result oriented program does not make our life less difficult than it is now. On the contrary, the need to judge what we achieve in our programs requires close monitoring and supervision, because, in judging results, we must look at comprehensive outcomes (which include the processes involved, as perceived by Arjuna on the eve of his battle).

A results agenda for knowledge products is even more difficult to design than for projects. Economists love to cite a statement by John Maynard Keynes from the last chapter of his General Theory: some ideas, right or wrong, have more power than common mortals may think. They command the world, because “practical men,” who believe they are immune from any intellectual influence, are, in general, “slaves of some defunct economist.”

No way, says Paul Samuelson in Inside the Economists’ Mind. The popularity of Keynes’s saying only reveals vanity among economists, or the desire to leave a mark in history. As a matter of fact, any madman sitting in a position of power could generate his own delusions without help from intellectuals, whether the ideas are from the frontiers of science or are out of fashion. In addition, the economists who surround public authorities cook what the government would like to digest.

Samuelson’s reflections recommend modesty. Our priority is to engage all in a debate over what are the results we should look for and which instruments can take us there. None of us have the final answer. We need to ask the right questions, listen and learn to create solutions as we move ahead.

Comments

Submitted by Arun on
In my humble opinion, there's a misunderstanding about the Gita. Gita is a part of the Mahabharata, and the Mahabharata story has made it very clear that Arjuna has only two options - either to fight or else to spend the rest of his life in exile in the forest. In particular, in the Mahabharata, Krishna has already provided Arjuna's adversaries the cosmic vision that he is going to provide Arjuna in the Gita - and that did not persuade them to make peace. The do-duty-without-fearing-the-consequences applies when there are no choices about the consequences. I believe Amartya Sen, you, etc., have made a mistake of considering the Gita out of context.

A rich text such as the Gita can live with more than one interpretation. Amartya Sen makes good use of the contrast between Krishna's ethics ("do your duty") and Arjuna's dilemma. Should Arjuna do his duty and fight (and kill many people including people he loved)? Or should he spend the rest of his life in exile (without being responsible for a brutal battle and much killing)? Even if there would not be peace, Arjuna could choose between leading the battle or not.

Submitted by Ram Bansal on
Genesis of Pandavas from unknown fathers, and their performances, like using one woman as common wife, putting her at stake in gambling, etc. made then totally undeserving for ruling other people from modern standards as well as from standards of those times. Krishna, very cunningly, masterminded Mahabharat war and for this purpose misused might of the Pandavas with a sole objective of getting everyone killed except himself. All his life, Krishna used his nasty tricks to get other warriors killed.

Arun is totally wrong to say that Krishna's message was do-duty-without-fearing-consequences. Read Gita carefully. Krishna initially tried to lure Arjuna to the war by promising Heaven. Later he threaten him with infamy and hell. To unconvinced Arjuna, he then preached his famous speech .. KARMANEYBADHIKARESTU MAFALESHU KADACHANA. Later almost in the end of Gita, he told Arjuna that he would absolve him of all sins incurred through the war. Isn't Krishna contradictory? How would you justify Krishna's do-duty-without-fearing-consequences theory?

Submitted by Ram Bansal on
What is generally understood about Gita is due to misinterpretations. Gita is written in Vedic Sanskrit while all its translations have been done based on modern Sanskrit. No body, including that idiot Krishna, did, can do, will ever do without expectations of results. If your interpretation of Gita is correct, then Arjun was surely misguided by Krishna to get everybody killed except himself, as he refused to take to arms by himself as a cunning strategy. It is not only the actions and results which are important considerations, but the most important factor, in case of World Bank aids, how the recipient is performing in general and does he/she is qualified to receive the aid. You can't put your meals in a dirty plate and then eat it. Before putting the meals, you must check cleanliness of the plate. Actions and results are later considerations. Actions are beyond your control, and the apparent results may be misleading. So, only consideration remains qualifications of the recipient. I have been pleading with your IEG and others in the World Bank to send a team of observers to my village and have a first person idea of condition of people wrt. education, health, justice, and most importantly the processes of elections and electioneering.

I fully agree with Ram Bansal on his understanding of the Gita. Thanks

Do you mean I need to learn Vedic Sanskrit to be able to enjoy the Gita? I hope not. The post does reflect your view that institutions are crucial if aid flows are to bring results. Yet, how can we achieve institutional change and transform the society? Finally, when we are really hungry, even eating from a dirty plate would be better than dying of starvation.

Submitted by Arun on
To Ram Bansal's points: a. I don't believe that you need Vedic Sanskrit to understand the Gita. b. Yes, only an idiot would do something without consideration of the consequences. Ram Bansal hints at the right interpretation - which is do not be attached to the consequences. i.e., you determine to the best of your ability what is the right thing to do, and you do it with as much energy and enthusiasm as you can, and then you are not unduly elated nor unduly disappointed if you meet with success or failure. To Eliana Cardoso's points: Yes, a rich text can live with many interpretations - but then don't claim that this is what the text says - always say, this is how I interpret it. In in this case, Amartya Sen converts everyone who uses the Gita into a moral cretin. Let me try to explain the problem I see with Amartya Sen this way: I could go about making claims that the Quran requires non-believers to be fought and killed; surely the Quran is a rich text that can live with many interpretations, and this is certainly a conclusion I can draw and logically defend. But then by doing so, I convert every peaceful Muslim into someone who is not following the tenets of his/her religion. Is that acceptable? I don't care what use Amartya Sen makes of a flawed interpretation, it can be very beautiful.

Submitted by Arun on
My responses were hurried, here I'd like to spell it out a bit more carefully. a. First, to read any text is to interpret it. There is no mathematical proof of what the correct interpretation is. But we can talk of good interpretations and bad interpretations. If the text is not gibberish and not fiction, a good interpretation is possible. We postulate that a good interpretation of the Gita is possible. b. Second, we note that it is almost impossible for humans to do anything without the consequences in mind. I raise my hand to scratch my nose - even in this simple action, there is a goal that I hope to reach. c. Third, as you find from any sane teacher of the Gita, (ranging in orientation from Eknath Easwaran to "Dadaji" Pandurang Athavale to Swami Dayananda Saraswati) the non-attachment to the consequences does not mean that you do not strive for a particular goal. One is irresponsible if one does not use the right means for the right goals. What it means is that success does not elate you nor does failure depress you. d. Fourth, while the Gita is indeed a rich text and admits many interpretations, one still has a responsibility to not mangle the text. To illustrate the category of mistake that Amartya Sen makes here, consider the Quran as a rich text that admits of many interpretations. I can quote chapter and verse and prove to you that the true believer is obliged to fight and kill the non-believer. At least, it is within the scope of possible interpretations (and such interpreters exist). But notice what I have done by this interpretation - I have turned every Muslim into a homicidal maniac and every peaceful Muslim into a hypocrite who does not follow the tenets of his/her religion. (Indeed, a lot of Muslim-phobia is created in exactly this way - by creating mistrust of peaceful Muslims, saying that they cannot be following their religion, the true religion is that preached by al Qaeda.) Like Amartya Sen, I can turn this interpretation into a wonderful and beautiful philosophical discourse on the First Amendment and the Freedom of Religion in the Light of Islam. Amartya Sen has made exactly this category of mistake. With his interpretation of the Gita, he turns the Hindus of the present and of the last two thousand years into cretins; a central book of theirs supposedly tell them to act without thinking of the consequences. My advice to people like Elaina Cardoso is: no matter how brilliant Albert Einstein is you wouldn't learn the Torah from him.

Submitted by Arun on
Mahatma Gandhi was an exponent of the Gita (Amartya Sen is not). Mahatma Gandhi however did not act without considering the consequences. Who do you think understood/understands the Gita better - Mahatma Gandhi or Amartya Sen?

Mahatma Gandhi is not flawless. It was he who had made Ram a GOD contrary to Valmiki's Ramayana where he is portrayed as a normal human being who cursed his father for his misery once he was out of the limit of Ayodhya. Don't forget Mahatma Gandhi described the 1934-earthquake in Bihar a curse of GOD for the peiople's practice of untouchability. If a person could make such unscientific remark on a tremor, his interpretation of the GITA can well be questioned.

Submitted by Ananth on
Unscientific? Gandhi's comment on the earthquake wasn't even meant to be "scientific". It was meant to awaken people to the inhuman practice of untouchability. Obsessive search for science everywhere is madness. Are you joking when you say he "made" Ram God? Haha..thats just funny. Have you ever made the effort of reading the works of Sankaracharya/Ramanujacharya/Madhwacharya and other great techers of India? To make a comment without making even a little effort to understand it is irrational and unscientific. Lord Rama cursed his father? Where? Which part of Ramayana? Please quote. Without a quote I'll only consider you to be a careless liar.

You've been discussing the Gita and A. Sen. But what would you have to say about Paul Samuelson's observations at the end of the post? How important are economists' ideas? What is the economits'role in development?

Submitted by Arun on
In the light of the financial crisis of the US, it seems apparent that many economists are not scientists, they produce results that are consonant with an ideology and ignore inconvenient facts. In particular you may have seen the disputes between the salt-water and fresh-water economists in the US. "Is the intervention producing the intended benefits and what was the overall impact on the population? Could the program or project be better designed to achieve the intended outcomes? Are resources being spent efficiently?" Regarding measuring the performance of a program - it is a difficult problem. In a corporate environment, in my experience, people's behaviors change to optimize the metrics they are measured against, and that behavior may not be optimal or may even be detrimental for the organization as a whole. So let's assume there are no incentives to game the measurements. I suppose if you have a measurable objective - e.g., increase percentage of children who receive necessary vaccinations; or reduce incidence of some disease; or increase literacy rate, or increase rural electrification - then it is fairly straightforward to see whether you've reached your objective. A better designed program would reach the objective with less cost and effort. We tend to assume that things like I mention here improve the lives of people, but quantifying the benefit is hard. In particular, given limited resources, you may have to choose to do one of these several things - then which of the above things is the "best"? I'm not sure how you would figure that out.

Yes, measuring performance is difficult. Impact evaluation conducts counterfactual analysis and it requires the identification of treatment and control groups. Methods for counterfactual analysis can be experimental or non-experimantal. Experimental methods use random assignment as a way to obtain comparable treatment and control groups. The ideal procedure would be prospect impact evaluation which is planned before implementation of the program to be evaluated.

Submitted by Prajwol on
Dr. Cardoso, I enjoyed reading this post a lot, and I have nothing to add to it today, except to say I profoundly agree with your views. I bet this would be my shortest ever comment in this blog :)

Submitted by Arun on
"Mahatma Gandhi is not flawless" has nothing to do with his understanding of the Gita. Mahatma Gandhi's understanding of the Gita is infinitely greater than Amartya Sen's; I'm sure Amartya Sen's understanding of economics is much greater than Gandhi's was. In any case, any character argument about Gandhi and Sen would be decided in favor of Gandhi. Gandhi did not make Rama of the Valmiki Ramayana into a God, Rama was already a avataar back in the 16th century when Tulasidas wrote his Ramayana, and Tulasidas was drawing on an already ancient tradition. So now I can say with confidence that not only Amartya Sen but also his camp-followers are utterly ignorant of Indian traditions.

Submitted by Bhatra on
Are you smarter than Einstein? Fools here throwing mud on Gita? "When I read the Bhagavad-Gita and reflect about how God created this universe everything else seems so superfluous." ~ Albert Einstein "To other countries I may go as a tourist, but to India I come as a pilgrim." ~ Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr "When I read the Upanishads, I found a profundity of world view that made my Christianity seem like third grade." ~ Huston Smith source: http://www.hinduwisdom.info/quotes1_20.htm "India was the Motherland of our race and Sanskrit the Mother of Europe's languages.India was the Mother of our Philosophy, of much of our Mathematic's, of the ideals emboded in Christianity ...of Self-Government and Democracy, In many ways Mother India is the Mother of us all.." ~ Will Durant "India conquered and dominated China culturally for 20 centuries without ever having to send a single soldier across her border" ~ Hu Shih "You'd have to be brain dead to live in India and not be affected by Hinduism. It's not like Christianity in America, where you feel it only on Sunday mornings … if you go to church at all. Hinduism is an on-going daily procedure. You live it, you breathe it." ~ Marcus Leatherdale “Land of religions, cradle of human race, birthplace of human speech, grandmother of legend, great grandmother of tradition. The land that all men desire to see and having seen once even by a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of the rest of the globe combined. India had the start of the whole world in the beginning of things. She had the first civilization; she had the first accumulation of material wealth; she was populous with deep thinkers and subtle intellect; she had mines, and woods, and a fruitful soul." ~ Mark Twain "The Hindu religion is the only one of the world's great faiths dedicated to the idea that the Cosmos itself undergoes an immense, indeed an infinite, number of deaths and rebirths. It is the only religion in which the time scales correspond, to those of modern scientific cosmology. Its cycles run from our ordinary day and night to a day and night of Brahma, 8.64 billion years long. Longer than the age of the Earth or the Sun and about half the time since the Big Bang. And there are much longer time scales still. A millennium before Europeans were wiling to divest themselves of the Biblical idea that the world was a few thousand years old, the Mayans were thinking of millions and the Hindus billions" " ~ Carl Sagan "In India, our religions will never at any time take root; the ancient wisdom of the human race will not be supplanted by the events in Galilee. On the contrary, Indian wisdom flows back to Europe, and will produce a fundamental change in our knowledge and thought." ~ Arthur Schopenhauer

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