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Poor People Behaving Badly?

NYT columnist Nick Kristof had an uber-provocative Sunday column:

…if the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed. Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households.

The Obamzas, a Congolese family from the village of Mont-Belo that Kristof met, say they can’t afford $2.50 per month in fees required to keep their kids in school, or a $6 malaria net to protect them from disease. But mom and dad do use cell phones, which cost them $10 per month, and the Mr. Obamza admits to frequenting the local bars, spending around $12 every month on liquor.

Kristof cites a famous study by Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee called The Economic Lives of the Poor: “the world’s poor typically spend about 2 percent of their income educating their children, and often larger percentages on alcohol and tobacco….The indigent also spend significant sums on soft drinks, prostitution and extravagant festivals.”

Kristof is treading into some very emotional territory here, and has stirred up anger among a few bloggers for playing into harmful stereotypes. We definitely condemn any stereotype of all poor African men as deadbeat dads and drunks, but think it’s legitimate to consider that poor people could behave in counterproductive and irrational ways…just like rich people do.

Imagine another columnist writing about a rich white dad driving while talking on his cell-phone after having a few beers, risking the lives of his children in the car. For that matter, who among us makes perfect, rational decisions about our health all the time?

A growing body of work, including the Duflo and Banerjee study and the recent book Portfolios of the Poor, contributes to understanding the complex economic lives of the poor and chips away at misconceptions about poor people having “nothing,” living hand-to mouth, and immediately spending every penny they receive on food and other absolute basic necessities.

Is it really such a big surprise that the poor also want recreation? That the poor have a life? Including some of the same vices that the rich have?

The larger issue is explaining the seeming irrationality of, for example, Mr. Obamza’s decision to spend his evenings in a bar while his children sleep without a mosquito net. Could it be that outsiders make simplistic assumptions about the perceived value of bed nets to people like Mr. Obamza?

For example, a chapter by Michael Kremer and Alaka Holla in the book What Works in Development shows that demand for bed nets (and other life saving technologies like de-worming drugs or water disinfectants) collapses once you change from giving them away for free to charging even a tiny amount. Does this show that some parents don’t think saving their child’s life is worth spending even a very small amount of money? Maybe, but more likely it indicates that there is something wrong with our assumptions, as Kremer and Holla explore.

Perhaps it is that parents do not really believe in the efficacy of nets, drugs, or water purification tablets. Going even further than Kremer and Holla, we speculate that belief in the scientific theories underlying all these products is not so easy to achieve in a poor society. Rich people believe in scientific medicine not only based on their education, but also because they see it working for themselves and everyone around them. Scientific medicine is a harder sell in a society that has never had a well-functioning health system to demonstrate its benefits.

Researchers are testing these and many other possible explanations (here the randomized controlled trials are actually more useful, compared to blanket statements like “nets work”). We are just as worried about stereotyping the poor as anyone else, but we’re also glad the previous taboo is falling. The efficacy of aid interventions depends very much on understanding the behavior of the poor.

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31 Comments

  1. IdealistNYC wrote:

    I see the spending paradox of poor people in developing nations mirrored in the consumption habits of poor urban dwellers in the U.S. How often do you hear the argument that Americans are obese because healthy food costs more? If poor working mothers spent more money and time preparing healthy food for their kids instead of picking up McDonalds, then they’d save on healthcare costs later on. But it isn’t that simple, is it? It never is.

    Posted May 25, 2010 at 12:20 pm | Permalink
  2. E Aboyeji wrote:

    “Perhaps it is that parents do not really believe in the efficacy of nets, drugs, or water purification tablets.”

    Bill, you hit the nail on head there. This is exactly the case, especially with education.

    Think about it this way, why should a father (who has had no education himself) spend so much on education when he sees that the graduates all around him have no useful skills and remain jobless?

    Edcuation in Nigeria where I live has no practical returns for many young people apart from a tremendous turnover of unemployed graduates. Also the quality of the education does not allow these children to graduate with any useful skills so again the important question comes up, why not splurge on beer which has an immediate utility than spend so much in proportion on something that has not proven itself as an investment.

    Education in developing countries has to change so that people can see practical returns to their investment. That sit in class and listen all day model won’t work in Nigeria. Parents will only send their students to school is it represents a practical investment with immediate returns. The only way to do it is to inject entrepreneurship into their curriculum.

    NB: This is also in concurrence with Esther Duflo’s observations that making parents aware of returns of education on income has the greatest impact on making them stay in school.

    Posted May 25, 2010 at 12:22 pm | Permalink
  3. David Pinto wrote:

    My mother was told she could not go to college (1940s) because her family could not afford it. So she took business classes in high school. When she grew up, she realized that money that could have been spent on college was instead used for parties and drinks. She always resented that.

    Posted May 25, 2010 at 12:31 pm | Permalink
  4. Word_Bandit wrote:

    Agree with much here.

    Disagree with much.

    Your deference to science, formal education, and the hubris of the west’s “superior” analytic tools is not surprising.

    A little outdated, however.

    The most well-educated are embracing alternative medicine, and don’t posit empiricism as the end all and be all of human destiny, progress, or diagnostic medicine.

    A little FYI.

    Interesting entry. Lots here to discuss.

    “Rich people believe in scientific medicine not only based on their education, but also because they see it working for themselves and everyone around them. Scientific medicine is a harder sell in a society that has never had a well-functioning health system to demonstrate its benefits.”

    You really believe that “scientific medicine” works for us and for everyone around you?

    I don’t. And most of the healthiest people I know, don’t.

    Caveat lector.

    I see scads of well-intentioned, well-trained professionals who are clueless as to real diagnostics, and while doing the best they can, have been socialized into an essentially flawed model, one fundamentally driven by Western economics and not the Hippocratic oath.

    That small point speaks volumes about the overall narrative construction of your approach to aid, and why I pounce on it.

    However, I agree with your conclusion, “The efficacy of aid interventions depends very much on understanding the behavior of the poor.” But then we part, because you think sitting back and acquiring more empirical data is going to be the answer …..

    But few experts can do acquire the kind of data to which you refer, because they are not poor, lack sufficient references, and until you have been truly poor, diagnostic tools are hubris, no matter how many claims to “humility” are made.

    Nothing in your rumination surprises me, and I wrote as much (in far more strident language) when Dennis posted on this blog sometime ago, when I mentioned something to the effect that giving money directly to without some kind of assessment ignores the scars, both physiological and psychological, of poverty, and how those scars affect judgment, decision making, and one’s relation to the perceived world.

    I was ignored, not being an “expert.”

    I simply wrote as one who has been vulnerable.

    Meanwhile, for all your talk about empiricism (one of the enemies in the poverty narrative, because you’re unable to break from a Western fetish of its power), what is at issue here are the psychological effects of poverty, the way events change one’s relation to the world ….

    And again, I will take your use of the word “poor” to task. It is part of this larger “empirical model” that seems to serve some analytic need to categorize and label and define.

    In doing that, you reinforce those very categories you keep saying you want to correct.

    Vulnerable.

    Apologies for tone, editorial oversights, etc., juggling and don’t have time to worry about the nuances.

    Posted May 25, 2010 at 12:41 pm | Permalink
  5. Rob wrote:

    Obamzas? Really?

    Posted May 25, 2010 at 12:42 pm | Permalink
  6. Not telling you wrote:

    Hmm… I wonder if the public would be happy to fund a community development project if we were all fully transparent about the myriad ways in which “the poor” are not just these poor-but-happy innocent little creatures?

    Donations and support from the public are dependent on simplifications of how wonderful poor people are and how much potential they have if only they could get a little hand-up from an NGO. Any scandalous-type behaviour is always allotted to particular villains (traffickers) so that there is always a ready supply of “innocent” poor people that DESERVE our measly pennies.

    How’s that for transparency, y’all?

    Posted May 25, 2010 at 12:51 pm | Permalink
  7. Hannah wrote:

    The real misconception is in this statement:

    “How often do you hear the argument that Americans are obese because healthy food costs more”

    To me its education in general that is the problem here. I definitely understand why a parent wouldn’t see the need for their child going to school or sleep with a net if the parent themselves have lived their entire lives without them. This is the same argument behind the “healthy foods are more expensive” argument. Without education you only know what to do what you’ve been taught – until parents learn (and agree with) why they’re needed and how to attain them, they’re going to stick with what they know.

    Posted May 25, 2010 at 12:52 pm | Permalink
  8. jane wrote:

    Wait … the poor don’t believe in the efficacy of bed nets, drugs, or water purifiers if they have to pay “even a tiny amount” for them, but they do if they’re free? How is that possible?

    Posted May 25, 2010 at 1:01 pm | Permalink
  9. Word_Bandit wrote:

    Ugh.

    Some of these comments get exactly to my point.

    Unbelievable.

    Posted May 25, 2010 at 1:07 pm | Permalink
  10. Erik Davis wrote:

    While the personal choices of individuals certainly affect family budget choices in tragic and desperate fashion, Kristoff as usual makes the nastiest neo-liberal point in the most humanistic tone possible. I can’t address the underlying economics, but want to point out that Kristoff continues to burnish his reputation as a ‘humanitarian journalist’ on the basis of having purchased two human beings in Cambodia, which he portrayed as ‘buying their freedom from sexual slavery.”

    For instance: http://www.cornellsun.com/section/news/content/2010/05/03/nicholas-kristof-talks-oppression-women-worldwide

    The point of introducing this prior problem with Kristoff’s self-representation is that he consistently puts the burden of solving large-scale, structural poverty, including the dysfunctional behaviors that correlate so strongly to those problems, on the shoulders of individuals. Thus, *he* was the hero who saved two Cambodian sex-workers (one went immediately back to her madam, the other was replaced by the madam through the enslavement of another girl), and “African fathers” must individually bear the responsibility for the untenable situations of their families.

    Kristoff is an embarrassment.

    Posted May 25, 2010 at 1:08 pm | Permalink
  11. Pierre-Louis wrote:

    Everybody wastes money on booze, parties and ridiculously expensive t-shirts… rich and poor…
    They need to get richer so that these guilty pleasures become an insignificant share of their income…
    Income may change, but bad behaviour is here to stay!

    In other words, farmers don’t become rich because they save more and invest intelligently, they just get a job in the city…

    Posted May 25, 2010 at 1:22 pm | Permalink
  12. Anne wrote:

    Erik – agree with your argument against individualist solutions to systemic problems (especially when people posit themselves as the heros of change – sorry but Easterly included in this). A very American tendency, unsurprisingly.

    Anyway, I see a few points:
    We need to start being honest about the poor. We should see them as complex, contradictory human beings like we all are. Seems we either angelicize them for fundraising purposes (or out of either ignorance or guilt). Or we demonize them as being corrupt/warlords/mafiosos/drunkards/materialists/whatever without bothering to understand their context and pressures.

    In the end we strip people of their full humanity by reducing them to types.

    I think some ‘bad’ behaviour is understandable (i.e. not seeing the benefit of education) or even drinking to relieve the pressures of poverty. And some isn’t: i.e. knowingly selling your daughter into prostitution so that you can buy a TV.

    Sometimes our own limited and biased (priviliged) perspective is at fault for failing to understand people from completely different contexts than ours – and sometimes – poor people are just plain wrong. To relieve the poor of upholding their own well-established moral codes (all societies deem selling your child into prostitution as wrong) is again to deprive them of their humanity and to say they are less-than capable of making good decisions.

    So we should be both “forgiving” and “demanding” of the poor, ourselves, and others.

    Posted May 25, 2010 at 1:33 pm | Permalink
  13. Wolde wrote:

    You don’t know what a poor person is. If he has a cell phone he is not poor, even though it depends on the purpose of having the cell phone. The rich also mis-allocated their resources.

    Posted May 25, 2010 at 1:33 pm | Permalink
  14. Anne wrote:

    Cell phones in these instances are often primarily status-markers. You often see people that have the phone but can’t afford credit and so can only take incoming calls but there they are flashing it around for all to see.

    On the one hand, I want to trivialize these behaviours as being understandable considering societal pressure to conform and the pressures that come with classist societies where people want to prove they are not on the bottom rungs.

    On the other hand, I don’t want to lower the bar for people bc I have seen many people (myself included) live according to that simple but oft-forgotten principle “live within your means”.

    Posted May 25, 2010 at 1:40 pm | Permalink
  15. Matthias wrote:

    E Aboyeji said:

    ‘Edcuation (…) has no practical returns for many young people apart from a tremendous turnover of unemployed graduates.’

    I think this is indeed a tremendous issue. In some places, acquiring the kinds of skills you can acquire in a poorly-funded public school is not going to make you find (inexistent) higher-quality jobs.

    Its not that the parents don’t have ambitions for their children. It might be that they are just realists regarding the prospects of education…

    Reminds me of the film ‘City of God’, about which one particular reviewer had noted that under the social conditions in some Brazilian favelas, going to school was considerably less ‘rational’ than joining a gang, even if you’d probably die younger.

    ‘Parents will only send their students to school is it represents a practical investment with immediate returns. The only way to do it is to inject entrepreneurship into their curriculum.

    Or you can pay the families to send their children to school. 13 million families in Brazil are benefiting from a cash-transfer program that rewards very poor families that keep their kids in school.

    Whether they are being taught ‘entrepreneurship’ or not, its already pretty good that they’re learning how to read, and do some basic maths. I really don’t think that the main problem is in the curriculum (though that, and quality of teachers certainly contribute to poor outcomes).

    Posted May 25, 2010 at 2:08 pm | Permalink
  16. Kerry wrote:

    All people rich or poor are tempted to spend on small luxuries rather than save for big purchases. The poor simply have less room for error.
    People need innovative products and programs are needed to help people commit to good decisions and then follow through. The effectiveness of innovations such as savings account linked to a commitment to quit smoking, or a savings account that includes reminders to make deposits are just a couple of exciting ideas that could have a big impact of the lives of the poor.

    Posted May 25, 2010 at 2:55 pm | Permalink
  17. Savina wrote:

    A more thorough look at how Banerjee and Duflo’s paper DOES NOT support Krostoff’s arguments is to be found here: http://wrongingrights.blogspot.com/2010/05/pissed-off-by-kristof.html

    Posted May 25, 2010 at 5:32 pm | Permalink
  18. Rebecca Burlingame wrote:

    I am reminded of a conversation with a welfare worker years ago who spoke of how unreasonable it was for a poor family to have pets. Think of the additional expense! And yet the value of those pets far outweighed the cost of some dog food. This is why voluntary aid is so much better than governmental aid. The minute someone takes government aid they are exposed to judgements that never end or take into consideration that anyone, whether or not they have money, at least deserve a little respect for being human.

    Posted May 25, 2010 at 7:22 pm | Permalink
  19. Stephen Jones wrote:

    My experience is the opposite. I’ve seen Sri Lankan families on $120 a month spend $30 a month on that to send the kid to an exorbitant private Montessori school 3 mornings a week. A cheaper one $15 for five mornings a week has now opened but the amount of money the poor spend on tuition classes is frightening.

    Posted May 25, 2010 at 7:39 pm | Permalink
  20. I work with natives tribes in the primary Manu Rain Forest in the southeastern Peruvian Amazon. I have a question: What would happen if we stopped looking at people and countries as poor? Poverty only exists in our minds and within our inability to see the divine plan for the individual or country. We always seem to find money for things that deem valuable. Perhaps in Obamzas case, it will take another generation for things to change. What my organization does is focus on…is the children. Inspiring and awakening their greatest potential through sustainable ways. We work with clean water, sanitation and health edu…but if I had a mosquito net problem, we would involve the children in a service project where they work & contribute time and effort towards a decided goal, and in return, they would earn their net. Supporting children and people from a place of inner strength,rather then from their weakness or victim hood is how the world become a more conscious and expanded place for us ALL! To empower another is to empower our selves

    Posted May 25, 2010 at 10:15 pm | Permalink
  21. John wrote:

    So what do the wives of the drinking men think?

    Posted May 25, 2010 at 11:58 pm | Permalink
  22. onyce wrote:

    I’d like to echo the point that other places have taken this on more thoroughly – including the Wronging Rights (mentioned above) and at http://www.fair.org/blog/2010/05/24/kristofs-simplest-option-for-ending-poverty-blame-the-poor/.

    This posting takes the actual premise of Kristoff’s story at face value, without pointing out his reading of the study is totally inaccurate and misleading. It asks plenty of philosophical questions about how people use their money but it’s undermined by the fact that story is based on a flawed reading of research.

    Posted May 26, 2010 at 12:14 am | Permalink
  23. Aki wrote:

    So poor are poor because they do what almost everybody else is doing drinking, smoking, sleeping with X and Y etc. I know a pretty big number of rich people doing the same why aren’t they poor if this is the cause? the conclusion of the article is that if instead of spending this money on mobiles and drinking they would invest in the kids then their future will be entirely changed.
    If everything will be that simple probably by now we wouldn’t have in dictionary the word poor.
    I can take a very simple example from my country about the relation between education and being rich. One man has a football team, various real estates, a political party and many other business and frequently is broadcast on TV where he speaks his opinion about politics, social life economy etc. Now the man can’t speak correctly his mother tongue and he couldn’t even finish high school. Most of poor people take him as a model. So how do you convince poor they should send their kids in school when a university graduate earn less then a construction worker, when a teacher is payed less then a secretary ? How do you convince people in Yemen that instead of spending money on Khat (local drug) they should invest in their kids future when half of the Parliament can’t read and write?
    the article reminds me of a friend research on why people are reluctant to send kids to school in Laos? Because they see no benefit what so ever. they have 4 kids send lets say 2 out of 4 to school then the ones who go to school go to city and try to find work. When they don’t find they go back home to work the land with their families. So they pay for them , to end up like the other 2 who didn’t went to school not even a single day. that means they spend without reason money but got same benefits if they wouldn’t spend it.
    In this case going to the local bar is not more attractive? Plus ever check a school in Laos or any other developing country ? I’m there and I’m not that sure of i would be poor I’ll be attracted to send my kids to school.

    Posted May 26, 2010 at 3:50 am | Permalink
  24. kadebe wrote:

    “The efficacy of aid interventions depends very much on understanding the behavior of the poor”.

    Exactly. Lets not forget that it took the introduction of free compulsory education in England (starting with the the first Education Act in 1870) for the poor in that country to change their behaviour and send kids to school instead of mines for, “Child labour was common practice in this period and working-class families were very reluctant to give up the earnings of their children for the benefit of education”.

    I am sure the line that, “if the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed” would have been popular among the higher classes of that time. Thankfully such views did not prevail and a national system of free compulsory education changed the behaviour of the poor (who no doubt still continued to endulge in the wine, cigarettes and prostitutes very happily after – til this very day,in England).

    Posted May 26, 2010 at 6:59 am | Permalink
  25. Mikhael wrote:

    This discussion reminds me of Orwell, “Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea! That is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C. level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the English-man’s opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread.”

    Posted May 26, 2010 at 7:50 am | Permalink
  26. John wrote:

    Nice. Let’s all bash on that white racist colonialist Kristoff for talking about behavior. Then we can go various articles in the “Well” section of the NYT and bash fat people and tell them about self-control and personal responsibility. Is Kristoff denying the fact that non-poor people also ruin, or at least damage, their lives and the lives of people they love through their bad behavior? Is he suggesting that a rich father’s nightly cognac and cocaine binge is just fine? Or is he just more concerned about the fate of Obamzas’s or Okonkwo’s daughters than those of a rich dad who snorted up his daughter’s Harvard education and had to settle for Cornell?

    And next, how about we all get on Elizabeth Pisani’s case for pointing out that behavior helps spread HIV, and that heroin addicts generally have worse behavior than others. We know why this is, mostly, and we don’t blame the heroin addicts. But we still want to change things so that heroin addicts can change their behavior.

    Just because rich people do something and it doesn’t destroy their children’s future, it doesn’t mean it’s a human right. You can understand why things are the way things are and still point out that the ways in which they hurt people.

    Kristoff isn’t making the argument of the deserving poor. He may have failed to properly represent some research adequately, but unless anyone’s making the argument that the poor (just like the non-poor) rarely exhibit self-defeating behavior, it’s just a quibble.

    I’m no expert. Does behavior matter to development? If not, Kristoff shouldn’t have brought it up and we can all forget about it. We know the global forces—and acknowledge that there are less-understood local forces—that shape behavior. End of discussion. We shouldn’t even say that drinking too much is a negative thing, that wives, sons, and daughters might suffer, because that’s passing judgment on people who act the way they do due to forces beyond the agency of the individual. ‘nuff said.

    But really?

    The comments on aidwatch aren’t so bad, but man, you should check out the vitriol and righteousness of folks on some of the other websites. Everyone wants to signal how much less patronizing and how much better they know poor Africans than that evil white liberal Kristoff. Even though Kristoff’s worldview is closer to theirs than 99% of the world’s population.

    Could I ask again because no one seems to care: what do the wives of the drinking men think?

    Posted May 26, 2010 at 2:01 pm | Permalink
  27. Word_Bandit wrote:

    NIck Kristof is not immune from criticism.

    I think there are a lot of problems with a white man taking many of these issues to task, and some of the points made here are valid. (Some are oblivious, but that’s another criticism, and another discussion.)

    That said, a starving dog will take whatever scrap is thrown at her, to speak metaphorically.

    If it takes a white male neo-liberal to do it, well that’s who is doing it, with the visibility needed.

    However, Kristof’s straddling some shaky territory, and has made some rather sizable faux pas since HTS took off; not sure if it’s schedule, attention, or what.

    No one’s immune from criticism, and that process brings things to light. Doesn’t mean his work is to be disregarded, but everything is a dialogue and dialectic. Certainly, there’s much to build on, and I think the “neo-liberalism” criticism, given the little I know of the economic slant, is probably smack on in terms of some real big problems that Kristof may be unaware are problems.

    Hero worship serves no purpose, and in my opinion, holding Nick Kristof up as a hero is wrong, and it takes place too frequently. A critic here in Cambridge was booed during the book tour. Not good.

    Regarding John’s comments, I think behavior is central to “development” and I also think it’s central to many criticisms I’ve blurted here:

    psychology informs behavior, and you can’t get to qualitative ends (i.e. defining what poverty means and what it means to alleviate it) via the endless regressions of qualitative analysis, objective empiricism, analytic tools.

    These are just outdated and ineffective.

    “The observer influences the observed.” So someone who has never really lived in poverty may not be able to understand the psychological layers, choices, and modus operandi of someone who has experienced the full contextualized brunt of those realities.

    More unsystematic thoughts, late in the afternoon.

    A little scattered, apologies.

    Oh, and my guess is that the women are socialized if not severely penalized to not question their husbands behavior.

    Posted May 26, 2010 at 5:00 pm | Permalink
  28. Jeff Barnes wrote:

    Great Post that has obviously stimulated a lot of interest. I think a number of commenters are missing the point. No one is blaming poverty on the bad behavior of the poor. The point is that if one is serious about improving the lives of the poor simplistic assumptions about the poor not having any money to spend have to be avoided. Look at what people value, what they spend their money on and you be better able to help them. And yes, the rich in society often influence how the poor spend their money by establishing and reinforcing models of aspiration. If the rich don’t invest in education and are able to rise in society through personal connections rather than achievement, this goes a long way to discrediting the perceived value of education for everyone in society.

    Posted May 26, 2010 at 10:06 pm | Permalink
  29. Mike wrote:

    I think the key to the duflo bannerjee and portfolios of poor studies really is savings mechanisms – school fees require saving money (and at least here in DRC for a long time – fees aren’t paid monthly, but several times over the year), and making sure that you can meet the fees over a course of several years irrespective of growing season etc. The kinds of savings mechanisms (credit arrangements) that the poor have access to are particularly ill-adapted to school fees, because when the school payment, uniforms, etc are due, everyone in the community is strapped for cash. It’s a problem in rich countries as well as poor, but rich have more savings options.

    Posted May 27, 2010 at 7:24 am | Permalink
  30. Mike wrote:

    *clarify: ‘instant gratification’ is a problem in poor countries as well as rich (school fees = less of a problem, though I could think of US university fees being an exception…)

    Posted May 27, 2010 at 7:27 am | Permalink
  31. John Morton wrote:

    I won’t comment on the general issues raised by the Kristoff piece as others have done so much more eloquently than I could. Mike is right that it’s partly an issue of savings, but the whole discussion here, and the Banerjee and Duflo paper, have neglected one of the most important forms of savings for the rural, and some urban, poor: livestock, and specifically small livestock like goats and poultry. Banerjee and Duflo don’t mention livestock at all in their sections on assets and on the market for savings. But time and again in several countries in Africa, when I have asked men and women why they keep goats, one of the top answers has been: to pay school fees and medical bills. They are just valuable enough to sell off to meet those contingencies. Is this a case of something well known to the small band of social scientists looking at livestock development that has not percolated into the broader debates on poverty? In the case of Kristoff’s example, of course we get no sense of whether people in the Obamzas’ community keep livestock, whether they cannot (livestock disease, insecurity?), or choose not to. But let’s look at the lives of the poor in the round, without preconceptions, and keep a place in our debates for those awkward goats that the poor are so fond of

    Posted May 28, 2010 at 11:32 am | Permalink

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  5. By Kristof vs teh Poor « Waylaid Dialectic on May 25, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    [...] explain global poverty). In doing so he arouses the ire of at least two blogs and elicits a thoughtful contribution from William [...]

  6. [...] out that poor families are just as prone to making poor financial decisions as the rich. Aid critic Bill Easterly has an interesting commentary on this article as well as [...]

  7. [...] An interesting discussion over at Aid [...]

  8. [...] the folks on Aid Watch challenged New York Times Columnist Nick Kristof’s assertion that poor families doom themselves because of [...]

  9. By International Policy Network on May 26, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    The Critical Links: Wed 26th…

    Blog Author:  Timothy Cox Our daily round-up of what other think-tanks and commentators are saying on the big issues: The WSJ explores the success of home-grown African businesses. Aidwatch on the importance…

  10. [...] Kristof has been taking a rather well-deserved beating for criticizing poor people in Africa for spending money on alcohol instead of educating their [...]

  11. [...] While I do not like the way in which Kristof illustrates his point, I do have to thank him for attempting to generate national dialog on the issue of behavioral incentives.  You can read my reactions to his post by viewing Comment #377.  As is pointed out by AID Watch “[t]he efficacy of aid interventions depends very much on understanding the behavior of the po… [...]

  12. [...] A number of bloggers have denounced Kristof’s article both academically and personally. Other influential voices have been more tepid, but they are in the minority, and still are quite far from an [...]

  13. [...] does that mean that they are so black and white? William Easterly and Laura Frechi argue quite compellingly that there are larger social issues at play here. It’s not that parents think their kids [...]

  14. [...] Poor People Behaving Badly? (May 25, 2010) by William Easterly and Laura Freschi on the Aid Watch blog. [...]

  • About Aid Watch

    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

    "Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking." - H.L. Mencken

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