19 May 2010

The Role of Science in a Baha'i Development Context

As someone who aspires to work in the field of international development, I am excited by the increasing reliance of empirical and experimental approaches to discerning the most effective poverty interventions. One of the most trenchant criticisms of international development efforts has been that they are effete at best and often counterproductive. Often good intentions in the form of aid money are wasted away or embezzled by the governments that are supposed to utilize them.

Esther Duflo, co-founder of the Poverty Action Lab, argues in her recent TED talk...

...that we can utilize randomized controlled trials, which have revolutionized the field of medicine, to quantify which policy interventions are most effective in targeting poverty.

She gives the example of a randomized control trial of 134 villages comparing the effectiveness of incentives for immunizing children. In the past, the main problem has been lack of convenience for the mothers, who often have to walk for miles only to find that the health center is closed. In this experiment they picked two sets of randomly selected villages and provided a monthly camp of immunization services. In one of the sets they also provided a kilo of lentils as an incentive to immunize their children. This is not enough to effectively bribe people, but it is enough to persuade them to act now, rather than later. They compared the resulting immunization rates to a control set of villages that received neither intervention, and found that while the control villages had an immunization rate of 6%, and the villages with the camps had an immunization rate of 17%, the fully incentivized camps, for just a marginal amount more invested in some lentils, had an immunization rate of 38%. This might seem like an obvious result, but in many cases the most effective solution isn’t so obvious. 

She gives another example of incentivizing school attendance and thus breaking the cycle of poverty. There are many proposed ways to keep poor kids in school, including providing school meals, giving girls sanitary pads, paying parents, providing free uniforms, and many more. But, there are limited resources so it is important that institutions have a way to prioritize based upon these experiments. Randomized controlled trials can be applied to more than just poverty intervention. A project that I am working on with IPA is using this approach to encourage sustainable grazing practices in Bolivia by comparing informational and financial incentives.

While this trend is only just the beginning of what is possible, there are some very clear limitations. For one thing, this approach assumes that scientists have the best interest of the people at heart, and won’t exploit or patronize them. It also assumes, however benevolently, that people are puzzles that need to be solved by the knowledge and power elite using top down technocratic solutions. The heart of development, I believe, is enshrined in the Baha'i approach, which focuses on experiential learning through cycles of action and reflection, with the goal of spiritual and material empowerment. It is still mysterious to me though exactly how the Baha'i community will integrate scientific and technocratic solutions within this framework of development. Will people be sitting in a room, reflecting on the learnings of a Jr. Youth empowerment program, when the "scientist" comes in and says, "well, you know, recent studies have shown..." Or will this knowledge be used mainly by the institutions, for example by the International Teaching Center as a tool to help define the next framework for action, or by the local LSA to better facilitate community affairs? In other words, will experiential learning rise up while academic learning trickles down, or is there another dynamic that I am missing? 


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. As you know, Jason, learning as a mode of operation with an attitude of humility is the name of the game. I've been intimately involved in the cluster level of cycles and find it's reflecting on the actions of the past cycle that one has been involved in that provides insight and intuition as to what worked and what didn't.

  3. When I watched this video, I thought to myself how glad I was the Baha'i community isn't confined by the us/them dichotomy this presentation assumes.

    Esther Duflo is speaking before an affluent California audience. She assumes correctly that the people in the room have basically no connections in the countries in question. She is interested in showing what can be accomplished with a fair amount of foreign money and minimal human resources indigenous to the country. She's not at fault for this. She just has a difficult hand to play, because that's the norm for most people in the field of development.

    However with Baha'i development, it's different. Most people working with Baha'i-inspired development efforts are serving in the communities that immediately stand to benefit. The question for affluent North Americans and Europeans then, is what can they do in their own communities, and what can they do to support the efforts of those serving in other parts of the world. Figuring out what works and what doesn't is a much simpler process, and local communities have a lot more options, since they're actually there.

    As for the use of scientific research in Baha'i development... maybe some other time.

  4. Thanks for the comments, I agree that the approach in the video is limited by and us/them false dichotomy, there is a certain arrogance in thinking of the extremely poor as the "other". And yes, I also agree that serving in the communities is a much more sustainable and ennobling effort. This is why, as somebody who is entering into a field as a livelyhood, I feel some cognitive dissonance as to the connection my role as a Baha'i, and what my role will be as a scientist. Clearly, one role of the scientist can be to integrate the findings from many different communities and draw some conclusions. I think that the kind of research presented here, things like randomized controlled trials, can be part of that. But at the core, real development has to be a dynamic of service and empowerment.

  5. A timely post in light of the emphasis given to a balanced approach to development in the recent Ridvan message: "Capacity rises to new levels, of course, as the protagonists of social change learn to apply with increasing effectiveness elements of Bahá’u’lláh's Revelation, together with the contents and methods of science, to their social reality." In this respect, we can approach the tool of randomized evaluation as just that -- a tool that, under certain circumstances, can inform our understanding of different patterns of human motivation, action and interaction. But to concede its possibile utility is also to understand that the tool itself has numerous methodological limitations -- eg, results will no doubt vary across geographic, cultural and temporal contexts. Most of all, though, it suffers from a conceptual weakness of promoting a fragmented understanding of social behavior and reality that completely discounts the role of local knowledge and values. Communities are not sterile, static environments. Education, knowledge generation, and collective dialogue can serve to shed light on fundamental social challenges and identify pathways of transformation. Achieving greater unity of understanding and coordination at the community level will surely reveal numerous approaches to addressing specific issues. The immunization example is perhaps one where decisive community engagement, consultation and learning would have led to much high participation rates. In short, qualitative understanding, research and reflection matters. It might be said then that "learning in action" constitutes an overall Baha'i approach to social betterment--but it is an approach that is truly holistic in character--technical, moral, social, spiritual. For more, see "Science, Religion and Development: Some Initial Considerations": http://www.globalprosperity.org/initial_considerations.html?SID=4

  6. Anonymous,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment and the link, I greatly enjoyed them.

    There is one quote from the document that I wanted to comment on:

    "Today, even with an increasing emphasis on participation and local community empowerment, development programs often are managed or initiated from the outside rather than from the grassroots of society."

    Isn't the Baha'i project one of having outsiders come in, commit themselves to the community, and then work to initiate grassroots empowerment? Isn't it hypocritical to criticize other development initiatives on this basis, because this is often the pattern also? I don't think we can assume that this cycle of "learning in action" will arise spontaneously from the "grassroots" of communities afflicted by a colonial or otherwise oppressed history. In some cases intervention is necessary, albeit intervention based on the process you describe.

  7. Good observation.

    The context of the critique of current "participatory" approaches is that they are typically not participatory in any meaningful way. Some development programs do better than others for sure but more often than not development project design, implementation and assessment is done completely from the outside with little substantive input from the local community or "participants" themselves. Even the assessment techniques which call for participatory engagement are conceived without local input!

    Although a focus on grassroots action is critical, this does not preclude outside entities from playing a catalytic role in assisting communities to carry out programs and realize their aspirations. In Bahá'í projects, a balance is struck between using proven, well-conceived training approaches or technical solutions developed elsewhere and allowing local undertakings to unfold in an evolutionary manner. The definition of a project, the details and pace of its implementation, and the ultimate assessment of its efficacy, must be in the hands of participating individuals and local institutions.

    A big topic, but as you suggest, Baha'is need to be very humble about these very challenging and complex processes!