Peace, data, development: Perspectives on poverty intervention

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London Lee/Courtesy

Global poverty is perhaps one of the most pressing issues facing our world today. In 2015, the World Bank projected that based on the updated poverty line of $1.90 per day, 700 million people, or 9.6 percent of the global population, may be living in poverty. According to UNICEF, poverty causes the deaths of 29,000 children under the age of five every day, the majority of whom perish from preventable diseases like malaria.

These depressing statistics beg the question: What can we do about it?

Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo’s groundbreaking book “Poor Economics” seeks to answer this pressing inquiry. Both professors of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Banerjee and Duflo compiled about a decade of research about various poverty intervention programs around the world. Using data science and economic analysis, their work analyzes the effectiveness of solutions combating global poverty in fields such as education, health-care, savings and entrepreneurship through summarizing evidence-based, randomized controlled trials.

This approach combines a variety of seemingly disparate academic fields to address a common problem — an interdisciplinary and collaborative strategy that is replicated at UC Berkeley. Luckily, this campus is filled with faculty and resources from diverse subject areas with ample experience tackling such issues.

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Qustavo Alvarez/Courtesy

One perspective on poverty intervention comes from the area of study known as peace and conflict studies, or PACS, at UC Berkeley. Campus lecturer Darren Zook commented that, from a PACS point of view, global poverty is a form structural violence and should be treated as such.

“This approach combines a variety of seemingly disparate academic fields to address a common problem — an interdisciplinary and collaborative strategy that is replicated at UC Berkeley.”

“There’s a causality that creates a quality of life that is catastrophically low for many people,” Zook said. “So, peace studies is going to look at it as a systemic issue.”

Zook also stresses the importance of treating the perspectives of the poor and the researcher equally, particularly in legitimizing the reality of impoverished persons’ situations and their input on possible solutions.“Try to figure out what their perception of the problem is, what (we) can bring in professionally, and engineer solutions based on the input of both,” Zook said.

One way for students to potentially put these words into practice would be through the Global Poverty and Practice, or GPP, minor, offered by the UC Berkeley Blum Center for Developing Economies and housed academically in the International and Area Studies Department.

“Regardless of what field students wanted to focus on for their majors, they could still go through this program and understand how … to actually have some sort of impact on addressing issues of poverty and inequality, both through their careers and through their daily lives,” said Chetan Chowdhry, director of student programs at the Blum Center and academic advisor for the GPP minor.

Other programs conducted at the Blum Center also seek to address global poverty. The Development Impact Lab, founded in 2012 with a grant from the United States Agency for International Development, has worked on more than 130 projects in about 35 countries over the past five years.

“We’ve really played around with different ways (of) thinking about how can we empower students to make a change in the world,” said Sophi Martin, innovation director at the Blum Center. “We try to tailor programs to help (students) go after what they care about and to be as diverse in offering as possible to let them do that.”

However, developing solutions and innovations to combat world poverty is just one part of the equation. In order for our interventions to truly make a difference, we need to know that they work.

“Understanding the impact of what we do is really critical,” Martin said. “That’s also a really big piece of what universities have to offer — developing the science of understanding whether interventions work, whether people’s lives are improving.”

Of course, it is easier said than done to evaluate the effectiveness of poverty alleviation programs. This is why Banerjee and Duflo stress the importance of randomized, controlled experiments to gain insights into how we can most efficiently help the poor.

“The goal of data science is to really understand what’s going on in the world given limited information, and I think with the issue of global poverty, there’s always a challenge in measurement”

– John DeNero

Data science is a rising field that could help with this aspect of poverty intervention. At UC Berkeley, Data science major and minor programs are expected to come out in the next few years, and classes are already being taught for students to dip their toes into the subject. John DeNero of the electrical engineering and computer sciences department currently teaches the introductory class “Foundations of Data Science.”

“The goal of data science is to really understand what’s going on in the world given limited information, and I think with the issue of global poverty, there’s always a challenge in measurement,” DeNero said. “The contribution of data science, at least I’d hope, is to help provide the tools that would let us make the best guess about how the world really is given the information that we have.”

But despite these significant contributions, data can only tell us so much.

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Ankunda Yvette/Courtesy

“You can’t tell what it’s like to live in a slum based on data,” Zook noted. “You can tell how many people live in the slum, you can tell whether this number has gone up or down … but the experience of living in a slum is lost in all of that.”

It seems that the only way to effectively address world poverty is to aggregate our knowledge from these various subjects and combine multiple approaches. In attempting to take pieces from each discipline in a cohesive manner, we may realize that there is no true formula for success, but that it is under our power to experiment with a variety of methods that may eventually take us closer to a solution.

“It seems that the only way to effectively address world poverty is to aggregate our knowledge from these various subjects and combine multiple approaches.”

“We really emphasize that this is an educational experience for the student,” Chowdhry stated regarding poverty fieldwork in the GPP minor. “The whole purpose is for this to be a launching point, for students to … (carry) this work forward in a more long-term sense through the rest of their time at Cal and after they graduate.”
Ultimately, the same can be said about studying each of these subjects. In carrying forward our work in poverty intervention, we should strive to understand each piece of the puzzle before attempting to put them together.

Contact Erika Siao at [email protected].

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