Sunday, October 21, 2007

New feature: My friends know cool stuff

Over the last few weeks I've asked a few friends to do some Q & A about things they know a lot about. Jeff Berens in the first. Jeff, who was my roommate senior year, is living in Kenya working for Poverty Action Lab. PAL is an innovative organization run by top flight academics that aims to discover which methods of poverty alleviation work best. It uses data and experiments to compare different methods of, for example, providing clean drinking water. This is just the type of research more academics should be doing, and over time PAL will help uncover best practices for how to have the maximum effect in the fight against poverty.

He lives in Busia, in rural Kenya. His job is basically to implement the experiments, which is no easy task. His job involves statistics, management, and survival (malaria, theft, and homesickness, to name a few challenges).

I envy his experience.....

Being in Africa, what do you see that is not accounted for in the typical debate about development?

Poverty isn't anywhere near as terrible as civil conflict.

What role can experiments play in improving development?
I can't say enough good things about randomized trials of development interventions ("experiments"). The donor community is starting to demand more rigorous evaluation of development projects, and randomized trials are the most powerful method available. Hopefully a shift toward evidence based allocation of funds won't be too far behind (though I wouldn't bet on it).

How can people looking for productive experiences in Africa go about looking for opportunities?

The most productive personal experience you can have in Africa is to work here.

After graduating from college I was in a position to volunteer in Africa, but I opted for a four month backpacking trip instead. I wouldn't recommend that for everyone, but it was an incredible experience for me.

Visiting a friend or family member who is working/volunteering in Africa and seeing what they do is a far better (and completely different) experience than doing any normal tourist activity.

You wrote your senior thesis on microfinance. How much have you encountered it in Africa? What other innovations will soon have the buzz that microfinance has had recently?
Most of my time in Africa has been in a rural setting, and my impression is that microsavings has much more to offer here than microcredit.

Mobile phones are acquiring a lot of buzz. As a means of fast, inexpensive, and reliable communication they've already made a huge impact. As a platform - especially for banking and group level information collection and dissemination – their value is going to explode over the next five years.


Blogger Michael said...

I visited Jeff in May 2007. The opportunity to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell life in Busia was spectacular, and far more impacting than any safari. Jeff arranged for me to spend a day "in the field" with one of his Kenyan data collection personnel. "remote" only barely begins to touch on the locale that these workers interface, and the settlement-by-settlement involvement by PAL in this country is impressive. Clearly, substantial training of the national workers is spectacular as evidenced by the warm reception the Kenyan families gave. When I asked Jeff to explain the fulfillment of his spartan lifestyle (no running water for 2-years), he was immediate in his response: "We're asking the right questions, and collecting empowering data to draw the right conclusions on what will work to help these people for the long haul." I'm way past proud of my son.

12:03 PM  

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