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Lab puts poverty programs to the test

The executive director of MIT's Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab will discuss how scientific methods are being used to measure the impact of poverty reduction policies in an Independent Activities Period session, "Testing the Effectiveness of Anti-Poverty Programs," to be held Feb. 1 from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. in E51-151.

Lab director Rachel Glennerster will describe how the lab is working to build a base of evidence on what actually works to improve people's lives. Nations and agencies could use such evidence to allocate resources effectively.

"Many aspects about what works in reducing poverty have to be taken with a certain amount of skepticism," said Glennerster, who will lead the session. She will describe how the lab goes about quantifying outcomes that have been mainly anecdotal.

MIT economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo co-founded the Poverty Action Lab in 2003; their goal was to reduce world poverty by ensuring that policy decisions are based on scientific evidence. The lab was renamed for Jameel last year.

The lab has studied how computer-assisted learning affects the performance of grade-school children in India; how women village leaders affect decision-making; and what are the most effective ways to reduce the spread of AIDS.

"To give a sense of what this involves in practice, I will discuss a few examples in more detail, including a large evaluation in Sierra Leone of a program designed to help repair trust in post-conflict communities. The Sierra Leone research provides an example of how we at the lab are designing ways to measure noneconomic outcomes such as trust and social capital in a rigorous quantitative way," said Glennerster.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 1, 2006 (download PDF).

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