When it comes to politics I am a bizarre amalgamation of a jaded idealist, and what I like to call an optimistic realist. Earlier this week I read an article that Digg linked to as “Stop Trying to Save the World”. Have you read it? In the article the author Michael Hobbes asks if international development is a sustainable practice (such as trying to provide clean drinking water to 3rd world countries), and if it should even be a practice. One of the prominent examples he gives is of an organization that raised millions of dollars to provide school children in Kenya with textbooks (the average ratio of children to books in this particular school was 17:1). And because organizations - even not for profit ones - are still businesses, they decided to turn their donation into a controlled study and divided 30,000 school children into study groups. One group of children were provided the required books, while another group was left without the much needed reading material. The study which last four years, found that the books didn’t help. The students didn’t get better testing scores in either group.
Now, if you are completely distracted and upset by the fact that the children were divided into groups and not equally given the same opportunity when there were ample resources (like I am), bare with me. The findings of the study led the researchers to look into the children’s attendance records, and they found that many children were missing class due to illness. The organization then decided to change their focus and instead concentrated on providing deworming medication to the students. Another 3 year study showed results of high attendance, study scores, and an overall healthier villages. Another bonus? It was a much cheaper cause for the organization to support: where the student books cost an average of $2-3, the medication was $0.49. When large corporations like Johnson & Johnson pledge funds of 600 million, that’s a lot of medicine.
The original cause of the organization was to raise the test scores of children in the Kenyan villages, which it succeeded at. The organization knew that it had succeeded because it followed and tested their subjects for 3 years. Their subjects were growing not only scholastically, but also healthier due to the medication which assisted in preventing other illnesses that having worms can cause. With the large success of the de-worming program, the organization decided to expand their efforts nationwide to every student in Kenya, and abroad to students in India as well.
So what’s the issue? The problem is this: studies are no longer being conducted to see if what worked for 30,000 students will continue to work for a nationwide effort, or for students in India. But the real kicker? The textbooks that were provided to the students in the study were in English. In Kenya English is listed as one of two official languages, but a mere 15% of third graders in the study could actually read the language. Those who were at the top of their class improved, but those who didn’t already understand English did not. For many student in Kenya, English is a 2nd or even 3rd language. Many villages have their own dialects. Had the language complexity of Kenya been researched before sending out English textbooks, the results may have proved different. Whats more, research shows that the medication provided directly impacted school attendance, not testing scores. So if the initial study results were botched by the fact the textbooks were provided in a language many couldn’t read, and if studies are no longer being conducted presently to follow results, how do they know that their funding is actually working? The even bigger question is, if did work in one area should it be implemented in 27 countries? What if the de-worming project turns out to be the same as the textbook project in another place or country?
Author Michael Hobbes says this: “Development projects thrive or tank according to the specific dynamics of the place in which they’re applied. It’s not that you test something in one place, then scale it up to 50. It’s that you test it in one place, then test it in another, then another.”
The problem with development projects such as the textbook/de-worming project is that once organizations see numbers they like, they often drop the testing, and expand like wildfire. Then they often fail, having lost hundreds of millions of dollars in the process. “Saving the world” quickly becomes a multi-billion dollar black hole, with many left the same - or even worse than they were before. Haiti being a prime example. What do you think? Have you ever wondered about the many Non-Government Organizations, and what, if any successes they are really able to provide? I bring this up because heading into the holiday season, many love to donate to their favorite causes and organizations. Leave me your thoughts and feedback below! Also, if you'd like to read the full article, please click HERE.