Some thoughts on More Than Good Intentions

It is more than a little embarrassing that it has taken me this long to write up my thoughts on More Than Good Intentions, given that I received and read the book back in April (note to PR people, please don’t let this stop you sending us review copies of interesting books). I doubt readers an introduction – Karlan and Appel’s book has been reviewed by pretty much every other blogger and development wonk out there, to general acclaim.

Perhaps having a bit more time to reflect and see how the book is received by others is a good thing – while my initial review would have been more comprehensive, it would also have had a fair bit of needless nitpicking. Instead of the review I would have written several months ago, I offer just a few thoughts on what the books gets right, and where it falls short:

Firstly, the acclaim is well-deserved – the book is a nice outlet into some of the more recent experimental evidence from developing countries. While it is obviously meant to be accessible to those with little working knowledge of development interventions and experimental knowledge, it can be still enjoyed by the more experienced researcher. However, those who are already¬† quite familiar with Dean Karlan’s work, or that of¬† Innovations for Poverty Action in general might find much of the book redundant.

In terms of what it lends big development debates, More Than Good Intentions is more a marginal than a seminal contribution – it will be most successful at helping its audience update their priors on conventional development interventions, rational behaviour, etc than significantly shifting the terms of the debate. It is refreshing to see a book a little more humble in scope and (mostly) less certain that we’ve got all the answers we need (there is some language at the end about proven interventions, but it isn’t too strong). This is when the randomistas are at their best: concentrating on slowly shifting the body of evidence, rather than petitioning for seismic shifts policy.

Yet, MTGI occasionally feels a little too limited in scope for its own good. By relying almost-exclusively on rigorous experimental work  (most of which they were involved or closely associated with), the authors have really limited the amount of evidence they can draw on. Subsequently, while the book feels in full stride discussing the nuances of microcredit and microsavings (one could almost see a whole new book here), it begins to feel thin as we move on to other themes such as education and agriculture, where we get less of a sense where the research Karlan and Appel highlight sits in the greater body of evidence. Development economists have been researching many of these issues for decades using less rigorous but still worthwhile methods, and it seems odd to discuss a few choice experiments without explaining how it connects to what we already know.

Chances are that you’ve already picked up or read this book. I’d definitely recommend it – but with the same grain of salt needed for all new works – use it to update your priors, not redefine them.

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