Micro-Evidence as it helps Broader Development

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Chris Blattman in his development blog recently addressed the question on if micro-evidence, that is minor studies within the development field on concentrated projects, has a lasting impact on the broader scheme of global development. He made a point of disagreeing with Francis Fukuyama, one of the leading figures in international affairs and development, who was quoted as saying,

“Development economists spend their time these days performing randomized controlled experiments, in which a particular intervention like co-payments for mosquito bed nets are introduced into one group of villages and not into another matched set. This approach establishes causality with a level of certainty approaching that of the randomized trials used in pharmaceutical testing. But while such experiments are useful for evaluating the effectiveness of certain types of public policies, they all operate at a very micro level and don’t aggregate upwards into an understanding of the broader phenomenon of development. It is hard to imagine that all the work being done under this approach will leave anything behind of a conceptual nature that people will remember fifty years from now.”

Blattman pointed to a number of texts and authors who study micro-evidence that he said have helped shape his conceptions of basic development, the most prominent of which is probably Poor Economics by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, which deeply analyzes how certain development projects have bettered local peoples and economies.

Although I am aware that this is taking the diplomatic (and perhaps therefore easy) way out, I must agree with both Fukuyama and Blattman. Both the micro and macro scale are important to understanding development, and both should concern those who study it. Micro-evidence such as controlled experiments with mosquito nets or tracking individual micro-financed entrepreneurs is indeed inherently important to understanding how economic, political, and social development occurs in particular areas. But the macro level, and as Fukuyama states the “broader phenomenon,” needs to be at the very least in the back of every good researchers mind. If this larger goal is not present, then what can anyone who works on development claim they are attempting to achieve? If only the micro-level is studied then Fukuyama is correct in saying that the broader picture would be lost, and the steps forward in the micro-level would mean nothing in a matter of years. If, however, the broader focus on overall development of people is present when studying the micro-level, then real, lasting progress on bettering the quality of people’s lives can be attained.

Though now 5 years old, Paul Collier’s book and work on the bottom billion remains a particularly suitable examination of both the micro and macro level. While always keeping emphasis on the larger picture of reaching a better future for the least development nations, Collier occasionally falls into the micro level when discussing issues of conflict, natural resource, and governmental or military poverty traps. This is how I believe development can best be studied and worked on.

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