Poverty pioneers

J-PAL is a global league of economists with a shared ambition: to help transform the lives of the world’s poor through better and more effective policy interventions.

Does microfinance work? How cheap do preventative health products need to be for low-income consumers to use them? Can cash transfers really help to raise school attendance?

For these, and other development questions, there are no one-size-fits-all answers. But academics at the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Lab (J-PAL) believe the best way to identify what works – and what doesn’t – in tackling global poverty, is data. The lab applies clinical-trial techniques that have long been used in medicine to gauge the impact of policies in areas such as public health, agriculture, jobs and education – and its findings have helped change how governments and nonprofits around the world support the poor.

J-PAL was established at MIT in Boston, but has seeded a global network of affiliated professors and poverty labs, the newest of which opened in Cairo in July. Philanthropy Age sat down with Alison Fahey (AF), interim executive director at JPAL MENA, and co-scientific director Adam Osman (AO), to hear how the lab plans to bring its evidence-led approach to bear on some of the Middle East’s most intractable challenges.

What was behind the launch of the Poverty Action Lab?
AF: The Poverty Action Lab was founded in 2003 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) by professors Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Sendhil Mullainathan. And the question they were grappling with was, if you look back over decades and the tremendous effort put into reducing global poverty, how many of those interventions actually work? They saw a mismatch between the efforts put in to alleviate poverty – in terms of time, money and resources – and the results, in terms of improved lives and reduced poverty.

For example, if you were a policymaker attempting to address a development challenge, how do you decide what to do? What tools are at your disposal that you know can really help move the needle on development outcomes – and that are cost effective? The motivation behind the lab was to generate evidence that would be useful to decision-makers dealing with those questions.

“What we’re trying to say is that it’s wonderful to want to invest in helping people – but let’s learn what actually works and what doesn’t.”

Adam Osman, co-scientific director, J-PAL MENA.


Name: Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL)
Primary philanthropist: The Jameel Family through Community Jameel. The family’s gift prompted the renaming of the lab in 2005, which was originally known as the Poverty Action Laboratory
Location: Headquartered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in the US, with seven regional offices, including J-PAL MENA in Cairo, Egypt.
Established: 2003, with J-PAL MENA established in July 2020.
Network: The organisation is supported by a network of more than 200 affiliated professors at universities around the world.
Focus: J-PAL is a global research center working to alleviate poverty by ensuring policy is informed by evidence.
Process: J-PAL’s network of affiliated professors partner with governments and nonprofits to test the impact of social programmes. Findings are used to help improve the effectiveness of poverty reduction efforts.
Impact: Globally, J-PAL has conducted more than 1,000 randomised evaluations, including 29 in the Arab region. Programmes found to be effective by this research have been scaled to reach 400 million people around the world. In 2019, J-PAL founders Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo were awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for their experimental approach to fighting global poverty.

What was the path to tackling that evidence gap?
AF: J-PAL’s approach takes a page from the field of medicine. In medical research, randomised controlled trials are used to test the effectiveness of different drug therapies. Researchers, including J-PAL’s founders, saw that they could use a similar method to isolate the impact of a particular development programme and – in partnership with governments, ministries and nonprofits – actually test policies in a real-world setting. That was the real innovation.

Their aim was to build an evidence base and to help get these insights into the hands of decision-makers. They felt that if they could bring rigorous evidence about effectiveness into the conversation, it could lead to the introduction of better solutions.

What can be the impact of this lack of data?
AO: There are so many interventions and programmes that have been evaluated, and we’ve found out they have zero, or close to zero, return on investment. Together, these represent billions of dollars of investment.

One that springs to mind is microfinance, and the initial subsidies that were pumped into the industry. The idea was that microfinance could solve all the problems of the poor, and in fact, on average, it has had limited impact. 

The current system puts so much money into ineffective things, without knowledge of that inefficiency. What we’re trying to say is that it’s wonderful to want to invest in helping people – but let’s learn what actually works and what doesn’t, and then direct public or philanthropic funding that way.

“When we think about this idea of seeding a culture of evidence-based decision-making, philanthropy has an incredibly important role to play in getting that off the ground.”

Alison Fahey, interim executive director, JPAL MENA.

image title image title image title
J-PAL works to close the gap between the money invested in poverty alleviation efforts, and the outcomes. Credit: Panos.

How has that agenda shaped J-PAL’s model?
AF: It’s reflected in a few features that differentiate us from other organisations. The first, which underpins everything, is the use of randomised evaluations to test the effectiveness of programmes or policies. The second is our global network of affiliated professors, which comprises some of the world’s top development economists and political scientists, from more than 50 universities.

The network today spans more than 200 professors, all with their own geographic interests and topical interests – but what unites them is their use of randomised evaluation as a tool to understand impact. So while the lab started at MIT, by definition its work is globally informed by the insights of this network. That’s key, because to understand what policy issues really matter in a region – and what kind of solutions make sense – you need a strong local grounding.

It’s also why J-PAL launched a network of regional offices, based at host universities. These offices are responsible for helping to facilitate research in their region, and for making connections between policymakers and researchers in our network to identify new questions we should be asking and answering together. Today, we have more than 400 people worldwide across our regional and head offices, and that’s given a huge push to both the research and the range of partners we work with.

Who do you typically partner with in your work?
AF: We do a lot of work with governments: in about half of studies, the implementing partner is a government agency. In other cases, we work with NGOs, nonprofits or local foundations. Broadly, these are people who have the mandate and capacity to design and deliver anti-poverty programmes, and are rooted in the problem they’re trying to address. They’re also often the generators of really interesting and innovative ideas around what the potential solutions could be.

How do you ensure research is translated into policy? 
AF: Top-quality academic research is terrific, but its usefulness is limited if it stays in the academic sphere. We really focus on ensuring new research tackles the gaps and questions policymakers care about, and then, when it’s complete, that insights are fed back into the decision-making process. Our regional offices work to build those deep, local partnerships and create a path to uptake of evidence.

Our training efforts also contribute to this goal. We spend a lot of time working with policymakers and donors, building their capacity to generate and use evidence in their work. It’s also important to us to work with researchers based in the region. This all contributes to an ecosystem of thinking about effectiveness.       

Can you share an example of what that looks like in practice?
AF: If we look back at the Millennial Development Goals, one of those set called for increasing school attendance around the world. The progress on that was extraordinary, but it also led to a new challenge. While kids were physically in school, evidence from national and international assessments showed they didn’t necessarily seem to be learning. So the question became – and it’s a bit trickier – once kids are in school, how do you ensure they’re actually getting an education?

One of the earliest evaluations by J-PAL-affiliated professors was with a large Indian education NGO named Pratham. Pratham had identified a challenge facing schoolteachers, which was: how do you teach a classroom full of kids that are learning at different levels? How can you teach those staying at pace with the curriculum, while also helping those that are falling behind?

They began with developing a quick assessment designed to understand what level of literacy or numeracy a child is learning at. Then – and this was the real innovation – for a portion of the day, the children would be sorted by their learning level rather than age, and taught with level-appropriate materials, before returning to regular class.

What researchers found was that children who had been lagging behind made huge increases in their reading and maths skills, helping to get them much closer to their grade level.

The approach was piloted, tweaked and refined, and ultimately scaled up through government schools and NGO programmes. Today, more than 60 million children in India have access to this ‘teaching at the right level’ approach. It’s been completely adopted by government. 

J-PAL recently opened its MENA office at the American University in Cairo. What opportunities do you see to add value in the region?
AF: J-PAL has been committed to work in the MENA region for a very long time. Our affiliates have been conducting research here as far back as 2007, so there’s long been interest in setting up here. The areas we focus on are those that matter most to policymakers, including jobs and private sector development; gender and women’s empowerment; humanitarian issues and climate change. Those are all areas where we think our approach would really add value and help plug existing evidence gaps.

Worldwide, J-PAL affiliates have conducted more than 1,000 impact evaluations of social programmes. Less than 3 per cent of them are in MENA. Finding solutions that are right in the region requires locally generated research. So there is a tremendous opportunity for us to partner with organisations, and to test and learn about the impact of their work.

Proving the case

Small firms are a mainstay of local economies, but much of their growth potential lies not in what they can do domestically, but in expansion overseas. Connecting firms in developing nations to foreign markets has long been hailed as a way to bolster profits, and to improve livelihoods for owners and workers.

In a bid to examine how exporting impacts firms’ profits and productivity, J-PAL affiliates David Atkin, Adam Osman and Amit Khandelwal undertook a randomised evaluation of small rug producers in Fowa, Egypt. The town, a three-hour drive north of Cairo, is home to hundreds of small firms that use wooden foot-treadle looms to produce flat-weave rugs. Most are run by a single owner, and only about 12 per cent had ever knowingly produced rugs for the export market.

The study gave 74 firms the opportunity to export their handmade carpets to buyers in high-income markets, with a remaining 145 firms acting as the comparison group.

The results showed exporting firms’ monthly profits jumped by 26 per cent, versus the comparison group, with a 43 per cent increase in the price received for each rug. The quality of rugs made by exporting firms also improved, suggesting they refined their production practices as a result of engaging with buyers in foreign markets. In a comparative test, exporting weavers prepared a rug faster and at higher quality than the comparison group, displaying improved efficiency.

The authors concluded that greater access to foreign markets may be a better boost for small firms than improved access to domestic markets – and particularly if coupled with credit access or business training.

“While [Covid-19] doesn’t discriminate, the effects of the virus are worst felt among the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. The ways in which it is going to exacerbate inequality are really worrying.”


How will this work be funded?
AO: Our goal is to raise about $10m to fund research and evidence uptake over the next five years, with perhaps 10 new studies beginning each year. An investment of that size could transform the research landscape in the Middle East -– and right now, that’s an area where it is lagging.

It would have an outsized impact because it wouldn’t just lead to improved policies. I think it has the potential to change the whole culture around research and evidence, produce a new generation of scientists, and create countless opportunities to improve people’s lives.

Certainly from my interactions with policymakers and heads of NGOs and civil society organisations, as well as others in the field, there are so many people putting time and resources into helping others. And in almost every conversation I have, people ask: ‘What could we be doing better?’

There is such a demand here for knowledge, and such a thirst for improving the way they are helping people. The demand for evidence is there, but the supply isn’t.

There are parallels between evidence-based policymaking and the growing emphasis on strategic philanthropy. How can this be leveraged regionally?  
AF: An important part of our model is philanthropic support. Worldwide, we work with both bilateral and private philanthropies – such as family offices, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, donor collaboratives like Co-Impact and others – and we’d like to do so here, too.

When we think about this idea of seeding a culture of evidence-based decision-making, philanthropy has an incredibly important role to play in getting that off the ground. We already work very closely with Community Jameel and would love to work with more regional philanthropies to share insights we’ve gained from our research, and to help ensure the programmes they fund are as transformative as possible.

Globally, to what degree is Covid-19 reversing gains made in the war on poverty?
AO: There’s tremendous risk –and I would say the process has already started. Three major areas that spring to mind are education, health, and infrastructure. With so many students out of school, it is clear Covid is going to negatively impact educational attainment and will lead to an increase in educational inequality.

In terms of global health, there’s been massive disruption to vaccination programmes and, as I think Bill Gates has noted, it’s likely to be the case that Covid kills fewer people than those who will die over the longer term as a result of these breaks in immunisation programmes.

The third issue is infrastructure. Governments in low and middle-income countries require significant debt opportunities to be able to invest in infrastructure – but we’re in a situation where every country will have debt problems now. That’s going to lead to a clogging-up of the arteries of progress. I think we’re going to see the impact of these issues for a long time in the developing world.

AF: Another concern with Covid is this: while the virus doesn’t discriminate, the effects of the virus are worst felt among the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. The ways in which it is going to exacerbate inequality are really worrying. The challenge for governments and philanthropy will be in identifying what needs have gotten even more acute for the poorest, and figuring out how to alleviate them.

Could the pandemic be a lever for more expansive trials of anti-poverty interventions such as universal basic income?
AF: I think the pandemic has highlighted how critical social protection policies are for those who are vulnerable. So concepts that were perhaps more of a fringe idea – such as a basic income – we’re now seeing more advocates for.

I also think there is room for thinking more creatively about social protection, and perhaps linking it more explicitly to re-engaging with productive livelihoods and ensuring people have the opportunity to get back to work.

AO: I think investments in public health will become more of a priority. I’m also a technological optimist, so I think the surge in people working and learning online during lockdown will likely lead to innovations that will allow for more low-cost service options in areas such as health and education. – PA