Published on Development Impact

The perfectionists versus the reductionists

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coauthored with Jishnu Das

Women perform 66 percent of the world’s work, and produce 50 percent of the food, yet earn only 10 percent of the income…. 

--Former President Bill Clinton addressing the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative (September 2009)

Impressive, heart-wrenching, charity-inducing, get off your sofa and go do something heartbreaking.

But Wrong.

It’s a problem isn’t it? Almost all those twitter-sized 140 character, pull-all-the-right-heart-strings messages (& yes, the “oh-we-did-so-great” messages like David gently took aim at) are usually wrong. Or at least don’t stand up to detailed scrutiny without many, many caveats.

Working on the gender World Development Report, here are some of our favorite ones:

Women make up nearly 70 percent of the world's poor and 65 percent of the world's illiterate. (International Labour Organisation 1996)

Women produce half the world's food, but own only one percent of its farmland (CARE, “Women’s Day Facts”)

Increasing gender equality by ____________ would increase growth by ___ %.

We specially love this last format, because you can put in anything in the first and second blanks, and the statement would almost surely be wrong (the Gender WDR has a discussion (box 0.1) on why looking at the impact of gender equality on country-level growth is just a bad empirical idea. Period.) And people actually have put whatever they want in the blanks including (but by no means limited to): education, teenage pregnancy, employment, land ownership, women’s wages, voting rights and voice. This is not because gender equality has no impact on economic outcomes; the Gender WDR copiously documents it does. But it does reflect a growing consensus among economists that, apart from “institutions”, we really don’t know how to spur growth in any given country at a given time.

But before you think that we are against the pitching of such erroneous or deeply simplistic messages (that are usually wrong), think again. We aren’t.

The simple fact of the matter is that it comes down to the power of rhetoric. You need facts that would fit in a tweet (the fact that most of these messages predate Twitter suggests to us that the 140 character limit is endogenous to what big speech writers knew anyway). They’re simple, they’re dramatic, and they just might get you off of the couch. 

Contrast this with Markus’s attempted sales job on land titling reform in Rwanda, where his pitch on the results are: “Land titling reform in Rwanda increased female land ownership and tripled the proportion of women who invested in their land through soil conservation. But it actually lowered ownership rights for women who aren’t officially married and these results are for four pilot areas in Rwanda.  As the ultimate sales pitch, Markus adds helpfully for the readers: “What we can say for sure is that there is no evidence of a (short-term) significant sell-off of land….It will be interesting to see what happens as this program goes nationwide.

The blog received 0 comments (nada, zilch, nothing) and in Google’s blogsearch, we were unable to find any other blog that linked to this one. As yet another blog sinks into oblivion, it is worth recalling Banerjee and Duflo’s discussion in the beginning of “Poor Economics”: People respond more when given emotional triggers tied to simple problems rather than complex representations of worldwide issues. If the aim is to educate people and get them to either think of something new or do something, in a fast-paced busy world you have to catch their attention. And the only way to do that is be dramatic, pithy and damn the consequences.

People who want to get the messages out then have a tough job. First, they have to deal with perfectionist researchers who always want to contextualize and caveat their findings. Can you imagine every finding from an instrumental variable paper with the caveat: “Of course, this is only the Local Average Treatment Effect, and we really don’t know what the average treatment effect is, which depends on how essential heterogeneity plays out in this particular population”. Doesn’t really work in trying to reach a broad audience, does it? Even with RCT’s that are easier to explain, any researcher will always want to ensure that the audience understands the particular context within which the experiment was run (the issue of external validity).

Second, they have little to go with. On the one hand, the literature is increasingly giving up on the ability to make “big” statements linking any specific country investments to growth. On the other, the microeconomic evidence is very geographically concentrated in OECD countries, and particularly the U.S. For those working on low-income countries, like at The World Bank, UN or ILO, the paucity of academic work outside the OECD is just astounding. A recent working paper by Jishnu and coauthors, finds that over a 20-year span dating from 1985 to 2004, the top 5 economics journals published 39 papers on India, 65 papers on China, and 34 papers on all of Sub-Saharan Africa. In contrast, they published 2,383 papers on the United States. It’s not just the top-5 journals; over this period in the top 202 economics journals there was 1 paper on Chad, 2 on Guinea Bissau and 20 on Niger. At this rate, it is basically going to be impossible to say something that resonates for many countries in a catchy, pithy and correct fashion.

So what should we do? We have a suggestion, which comes from observing election practices in the U.S. As we all know, candidates go off the deep-end many times and come up with some of most atrocious untruths (still catchy, and pithy—vaccinations, anyone?) that thinking candidates can come up with. But there is some balance. Fact checkers abound, for instant on CNN and on many, many blogs on the internet. Almost every statement that a candidate makes, from the cost of Obama’s trip to India to the impact of vaccinations on child health is debated and fact-checked. And many a times, candidates are forced to admit they were wrong and retract their statements.

A system of checks and balances leads to some equipoise in the game of claims and counter-claims that is the battleground between the reductionists and the perfectionists. There is a bit of that on claims regarding low-income countries; some folks do make a valiant stab at debunking them (see for example the FAO work in box 2 here , Duncan Green’s blog entry on this and Sylvia Chant’s paper). But there are way too few. And every time the fact is repeated by yet another Very Knowledgeable Person, it is reified and gains an immortal life of its own, shorn of the moorings that tied it down to its original, possibly modest and appropriately caveated academic contribution (if there was one).

So, part of the role of institutions like The World Bank, should be to encourage groups that take on the duty of verifying the twitter-like feeds that come out of the speeches at the big global forum. Such a group would (a) distill and provide a set of twitter-facts that Very Knowledgeable Persons can use in their Very Important Speeches; (b) would act as a detector of completely incorrect facts so that myths do not perpetrate and would (c) be a living object that takes feedback, requests for fact-checks and comments on facts from users all over the world.

With the Open Data initiative at the Bank, it has become a lot easier for people to participate. What we now need, as President Zoellick of this institution suggested recently, is to democratize development. And what better way to start than by inviting development practitioners from all over the world to assist and guide global leaders on facts about their own countries and lives?

But where would such an organization be housed? We know that it is not going to come up organically, just by the virtue of the fact that it hasn’t. Simply put, the people who know typically don’t have the time, the inclination or the weight to influence the “fact-debate” on low-income countries. We also know that it is going to require researchers who are familiar with data from many countries around the world and are willing to provide what is, by its very definition, a public good (if the fact is bad, and the speech is public, it’s a public bad. Correcting it must be a public good). Options may include global think-tanks like the Centre for Global Development or Brookings Institutions, or the research department of the World Bank itself. 

Wherever it sits, it (a) has to be public and (b) has to respond to queries from the public comes in. Maybe the solution is some kind of development facts “wiki” -- where the crowd (sometimes) goes after what is grossly wrong.   But Wikipedia depends on dedicated folks who monitor it and shepherd it along.  

In the end, this democratized knowledge place may not be the best, and it may not always take us where either the reductionists or the perfectionists want us to go, but it may be better than what we have now.   And an informed debate of the issues – where careful empirical work and (fact based) grand statements mix -- can lead to durable policy, just look at conditional cash transfers versus what’s been done on women’s agricultural productivity. 

Do write in and let us know what you think:

  1. Do we have a problem with the “big” statements?
  2. What’s your favorite example of a development myth?
  3. Do you think that our system of checks and balances may work?
  4. Do you think that we should have a group that deals with these facts and puts out fact-checked twitter-length messages? Any nominations?

And oh, this blog just got 49,563 page-views, making it the most popular one on development ever.



Markus Goldstein

Lead Economist, Africa Gender Innovation Lab and Chief Economists Office

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