‘It’s not that development doesn’t work. It’s that it can’t.’


That’s me in an article for The New Republic out today. It’s basically my (unworthy) attempt to write a New York Review of Books essay. I barely interviewed anyone for this, just read and thought and typed.

I know that goal-reaching is boring to read, but the whole process has not gotten any less special for me. Editors who interrogate my drafts like tiger moms, fact-checkers who don’t let me get away with anything, online teams who package me with stock photos and tweet me around the internet, I love being a part of it.

I want to talk about the (scant) reporting I did for this article, toward the end of the process, and how I feel about the final product. The first section of the essay deals with an NGO called Deworm The World, the brainchild of Michael Kremer, a Harvard professor who found that deworming pills improved education outcomes for kids in Kenya way more than free textbooks did.

Since Kremer’s Kenya studies, his idea has caught fire, and both the Kenyan and the Indian government have launched large-scale deworming programs on millions of kids. But, as I found out when I called him and Evidence Action, the NGO that has taken up his work, they’re no longer measuring whether deworming improves school performance. They’re administering deworming tablets to 17 million kids in India without testing whether they’re actually having an effect on the kids, rather than just the worms.

This was the first time in my little pretend-journalist experiment where I had to call someone up and tell them, to their face, that I disagreed with what they were doing, that I would be saying this in print, in front of the whole country.

And part of me feels bad about what I wrote. Kremer is a brilliant guy, and was way friendlier than I deserved when I called him up and told him all this. Evidence Action is part of a movement to bring scientific rigor to development aid, something I wholeheartedly support, even if I disagree with the specifics of the way they’ve upscaled.

The internet is not a good place to make a narrow point. We don’t have small disagreements or different preferences, we go on ‘tirades‘, we ‘slam‘ each other.

The truth is more complicated—and much less interesting. If you listed all of the things that I believe and all the things Kremer does, 99 percent of them would line up. Describe to me every project that Evidence Action is doing around the world and I would probably throw dollars at the vast majority of them. I’m not saying that he’s a fraud, or that the charity is bullshit, or that we, the world, should abandon deworming as a development approach.

My point, like I guess everything once you strip the headlines and the retweets away, is pretty small: I do not believe the evidence for deworming rises to the level where its effects on education should no longer be measured. That’s it, that’s the whole argument. He has evidence for his side, I have evidence for mine. Maybe I’m wrong and maybe he is, we both agree that more testing should be done. Even if his project fails, if deworming has no effect on education whatsoever, Kremer and Evidence Action are responsible for treating worm infections in 17 million Indian children. That’s more than I’ve ever done with my life, and that achievement shouldn’t be discarded just because the TED Talkiness of their impacts is more complicated than they originally presented them.

We shouldn’t let them off the hook either, though. There’s an understandable human impulse to rush to rules from particulars, and we’re allowed to criticise people who make this sprint without the proper self-scepticism. But we also need to keep our own scale in mind, keep our criticism from spilling out from action onto character.

Anyway, this is all just a long and tortured way of saying, let’s all be nice to each other! I hope readers will forgive my tirades, and I, for my part, promise to forgive those who tirade against me.


photo by the wonderful Guy Billout


Filed under America, Essays, Personal, Serious, Work

5 responses to “‘It’s not that development doesn’t work. It’s that it can’t.’

  1. We at Evidence Action disagree with you on the evidence base of deworming: http://evidenceaction.org/the-evidence-about-what-works-our-response-to-tnr/.

  2. Pingback: Why One ‘Big Idea’ Won’t Save the World | Longreads Blog

  3. Pingback: Being a Journalist is Scary |

  4. yboris

    Thank you for writing the article in The New Republic; you’re confronting a very important topic, one that a lot more people should be concerned with. Unfortunately, because it’s a long read, I’m afraid most people will only read/skim the first part and think that the title is the summary. I wish the title was different, more in tune with the conclusion (though I suspect you might have no control over the title).

    Here’s an excellent quote (from you!) from the conclusion of the essay, that I wish was instead the first paragraph of the essay:

    “In 2013, development aid from all the rich countries combined was $134.8 billion, or about $112 per year for each of the world’s 1.2 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day. Did we really expect an extra hundred bucks a year to pull anyone, much less a billion of them, out of poverty?”

    There is some really good stuff in the essay, though it’s overly negative in its tone. You unfortunately fail to point out the counterexamples to the sweeping claims you make. For example, one of your concerns is that organizations don’t have ongoing monitoring; but just because most don’t, doesn’t mean all don’t. Specifically, The Against Malaria Foundation keeps constant vigilance over its programs, transparently publishing its results.

    So if you are interested in improving the world, rather than concluding with your vague pronouncement of “we should all dream a little smaller”, you should provide actionable advice. For example you could say “there ARE great organizations that monitor their work and use proven methods of doing good, head over to GiveWell.org to learn more, and then reward the organizations that are cost-effective and are actually making a difference!”

  5. Thank you so much for your insights into these development projects, and your nuanced analysis of their benefits and pitfalls. Important stuff for us all to think about, especially those of us who want to use our resources wisely to support organizations that are genuinely helping people over the long term.