Randomized controlled trials are the popular centerpiece of an emerging data-driven approach to figuring out precisely the best way to end poverty. Can a return to the scientific method fix the global aid industry?
For too long, “accountability” in the aid industry has meant nothing more than ensuring that a donor’s money was spent the way an agency said it would be. Rarely did organizations examine whether their spending achieved a positive impact (improved access to water, for example), much less one that stood the test of time (meaning the well didn’t dry up).
But recently, many aid organizations, including theInternational Rescue Committee, a New York humanitarian aid group specializing in refugee assistance, have used RCTs to, among other things, evaluate methods for nudging parents in Liberia toward more effective parenting techniques and tocreate highly effective community savings-and-loan programs to combat poverty in Burundi. It’s easy to see why charities are attracted to RCTs: They can make an aid agency’s work more efficient and generate solid evidence of progress to show funders.
As organizations continue to conduct more of them, RCTs are disproving many myths upon which we’ve designed development aid for years, not least of which is our longtime preference for projects over cash. If the data shows, as the RCT of GiveDirectly’s Kenya program did, that it’s most effective to hand a family $1,000 with no strings attached, then that’s precisely what we should do.
Read the full article in the July/August print edition of Pacific Standard or online.
TSAVO WEST NATIONAL PARK, Kenya—When it comes to darting elephants from helicopters and fitting heavy GPS tracking collars around their massive necks, “a lot of things can go wrong,” David Daballen says. “An elephant can fall on its chest. Imagine, a six-ton animal just sitting on its chest—they crush their lungs.”
As dawn breaks, Daballen, who works with Save the Elephants, is leading a collaring team of a couple dozen people, including nine Kenya Wildlife Service rangers dressed in camouflage and brandishing rifles. They are equipped with a Cessna, a helicopter, and a caravan of Toyota Land Cruisers and other SUVs.
The Cessna, circling overhead, spots an elephant and radios the team. Within seconds the chopper swoops in low, disappearing behind the bushes and trees. A moment later it swoops upward, and the vehicles race toward the spot. Lying on his right side is a bull. His skin is brown and rough, with pokey black hairs.
The team sets immediately to work unrolling the collar onto the elephant’s neck and attempting to tug it underneath. Someone pours water on the animal’s side to keep him cool. Another puts a small stick into the tip of his trunk to keep the airway open.
After struggling 20 minutes to get the collar on, Daballen uses a socket wrench to tighten the two ends together. The job done, a man injects an antidote to wake the animal up, and the team hurries to their vehicles. Everyone is silent as they watch the bull rise. He stands, looks toward the vehicles, then he turns and walks swiftly in the opposite direction.
The bull was the first of 10 elephants the team tranquilized over a week to fit with tracking collars. Their mission: to see how well Tsavo’s estimated 12,000 savanna elephants traverse a new rail line that has recently split their habitat in two. It is the first time in history, Daballen’s organization believes, that elephants are being collared specifically to study how they interact with human infrastructure.
Read the full feature story at National Geographic.
HISPANIOLA – On the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, home to the sovereign nations of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, two large lakes are rising dramatically.
Lake Azuéi in Haiti submerged an entire community; across the border in the Dominican Republic, Lake Enriquillo has risen nearly 33 feet in just 10 years. As their land flooded, many farmers began cut-ting down trees to make charcoal to earn a living, leading to deforestation.
Scientists from across the globe have tried to solve the mystery behind the rising lakes. Some think climate change is to blame, arguing that warming sea created more evaporation and clouds, which led to more rainfall. But if true, that would be strange, because in most of the world climate change is causing lakes to shrink.
The phenomenon is spur- ring calls for more research to help explain – and mitigate – the situation. Until scientists are able to identify the cause and work toward a solution, thousands of farmers on this Caribbean island will have to adapt.
When Europeans began arriving in the New World at the end of the 15th century, they used the region to source silver, gold, coffee, and wool. Today, China is the foremost trading partner with several Latin American countries, and buys oil from Venezuela, Mexico, and Ecuador; iron ore from Brazil; beef from Argentina; and copper from Chile and Peru.
According to a new book, The China Triangle: Latin America’s China Boom and the Fate of the Washington Consensus, by Boston University global development professor Kevin P. Gallagher, Chinese investment in Latin America is outpacing even its famed liaison with Africa.
Gallagher argues that the Washington Consensus—by which the U.S. pressured Latin American countries to open their markets to free trade and deregulation during the 1990s—failed to help those states develop. “While the United States wasn’t paying attention, Latin America quickly became of the utmost strategic importance for China—as a source for many of the key natural resources it needs to grow its economy and the appetites of more than a billion people,” he writes.
But therein lies the hitch in Gallagher’s thesis. The antiquated notion that the U.S. and China are in a sort of dichotomous or binary economic arms race—a sense highlighted by the “triangle” reference upon which his book is titled—overlooks the fact that these two nations cannot possibly account for all of Latin America’s gains and losses during the two decades that he studies. If Gallagher’s strongest argument is that China’s Latin American presence is surprisingly large, his weakest is that it is almost singularly responsible for the region’s recent growth.
Read the full book review at Columbia University Global Reports.
NAIROBI, KENYA — First, a lioness ventured into the city as a decoy to draw officials away from her cubs that were lost in an army barracks.
Then, just weeks later, a pride of six lions breeched a fence into a pasture killing as many as 120 goats and sheep. One lion lost his bearings and ended up on a major highway, injuring a man before finding his way back into Nairobi National Park, located adjacent to Kenya’s capital city.
Now, this week, a popular lion named Mohawk ventured some 20 miles (32 kilometers) south of that park only to be surrounded and harassed by onlookers. When he responded by attacking one of them, he was shot and killed by park rangers.
Why are so many lions leaving Nairobi National Park?
Read the full story at National Geographic.
Several years ago, when I was working as a reporter based in Haiti, I came upon a group of older Christian missionaries in the mountains above Port-au-Prince, struggling with heavy shovels to stir a pile of cement and sand. They were there to build a school alongside a Methodist church. Muscular Haitian masons stood by watching, perplexed and a bit amused at the sight of men and women who had come all the way from the United States to do a mundane construction job.
Such people were a familiar sight: They were voluntourists. They would come for a week or two for a “project” — a temporary medical clinic, an orphanage visit or a school construction. A 2008 study surveyed 300 organizations that market to would-be voluntourists and estimated that 1.6 million people volunteer on vacation, spending around $2 billion annually.
Read the full essay at the New York Times Magazine.
The plight of Kenya’s LGBT Refugees
Ketifa was 16 when her best friend Sharon kissed her in the dormitory of the private girls’ school they attended in Kampala, Uganda. On Valentine’s Day 2014, Ketifa’s roommate walked in and discovered the two having sex. The roommate screamed, and with her voice sounding throughout the halls, the entire dormitory came to witness the excitement. The dorm’s caretaker paraded Ketifa and her girlfriend away as their classmates jeered. Days later, she fled to Kenya.
In March 2014, a group of 23 LGBT Ugandans showed up outside a UN office in Nairobi, Kenya, seeking refugee status. They had come to a country that remains deeply homophobic and still punishes same-sex activity with up to 14 years in prison.
If it is a difficult time to be a refugee seeking resettlement out of Kenya, it is a difficult time to be doing so anywhere. Last year, there were more than 60 million refugees across the world—more than at any time since the end of World War II. And even though requests for asylum are at an all-time high, the number of refugees who successfully resettle is in decline: Only 73,000 were resettled in 2014, down from 98,400 the previous year. Despite the unique threats against LGBT refugees from Uganda, did they deserve a disproportionate number of these slots? And how could they be protected while they waited?
The Dominican Republic built its economy on the backs of Haitian immigrants and their descendants. Now it wants them gone.
FOND BAYARD, Haiti—On April 28, 2009, Julia Antoine gave birth to a girl in a hospital in the town of Los Mina, in the Dominican Republic. Her husband, Fritz Charles, couldn’t be there—he was busy working his job at a chicken farm.
In the coming days, the couple named the girl Kimberly. When the family went home, Antoine was given a document from the hospital noting the birth, the date, and the word hembra, or female. They didn’t bother trying to get Kimberly an official birth certificate. Although Antoine and Charles had spent many years living and working in the Dominican Republic, they were Haitian citizens, and it was well known that Dominican officials routinely denied birth certificates to children born to Haitian parents if, like Antoine and Charles, the parents couldn’t furnish passports or other legal documents.
Still, Kimberly was, by law, entitled to Dominican citizenship. Yet in 2015, she was deported along with her mother.
Kimberly and her mother now live in a lean-to hut made of sticks in a refugee camp on borrowed land in Haiti. Their predicament offers a glimpse into what happens when a nation that bestowed citizenship on people born within its territory decides to take that citizenship away.
Read the full longform feature at TakePart. Reporting for this article was funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and through a Daniel Pearl Investigative Journalism Initiative Fellowship from Moment Magazine.
In Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the lakes are flooding farmland, swallowing communities and leading to deforestation, baffling climate scientists.
LETANT, Haiti—On a recent calm day, the surface of Lake Azuéi has no waves, not even any ripples. Pillars of pastel-colored concrete break the still surface, the tops of what once were houses. They are all that’s visible of the community that once thrived here.
Alberto Pierre, a skinny, wide-eyed 25-year-old, said the submerged village where he grew up wasn’t even near the lake. “The water used to be many kilometers from here.”
Lake Azuéi, the largest lake in Haiti, lies about 18 miles east of Port-au-Prince, the capital, nestled along the border with the Dominican Republic. Also known as Étang Saumâtre, the lake rose so much between 2004 and 2009 that it engulfed dozens of square miles.
“At first we put rocks so it wouldn’t come into our houses,” Pierre says. “But then the water just overran the rocks.” Families in the village of Letant began abandoning their houses, building huts on higher ground using wood, tarps, whatever they could find. By 2012, all 83 houses had been vacated.
“We don’t know why the water is rising,” he says.
In fact, nobody does. There seems to be no logic to the lake’s rise. Experts from the United Nations, a French engineering firm, a Dominican Republic university, a New York City college and many others have looked for clues to explain the rise of Lake Azuéi and neighboring Lake Enriquillo, just across the border in the Dominican Republic. But few of the theories seem to hold water. Some now hypothesize the phenomenon is related to climate change, but the evidence is counterintuitive: Unlike ocean levels, which rise with climate change, lakes tend to shrink.
The global mineral trade can be ugly. Think children skipping school to dig barefoot with picks and shovels for gold or other precious ore. Picture warlords and army officers using guns to traffic minerals on the black market. Think Democratic Republic of Congo.
Or perhaps, consider the multi-billion dollar corporations that source many of the precious metals they use to build your mobile phone or your laptop from under regulated and often illegal mines. U.S. Congress began thinking about this in 2010 when it passed a first-of-its-kind law aimed at curbing the trade of certain “conflict minerals” in the Democratic Republic of Congo—Africa’s second largest country, whose eastern region has been ravaged by mineral-fueled violence for decades, killing more people than any other conflict since World War II.
Covering Business spoke with Michael Kavanagh, a veteran Bloomberg reporter in Congo who has covered the mineral trade there for more than a decade, about what journalists get wrong and how they can do a better job of covering this complex and divisive subject.
Read the article at Columbia University’s Covering Business blog.