Philanthropy Action

Analysis, Interviews, and Reviews


More Than Good Intentions opens with a story of Buddhist monks praying as they dump live fish they’ve just bought from local fisherman back into the Marina del Rey in Los Angeles. The example sets up both the book’s approach and its basic premise: Authors Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel use real-world scenes to illustrate that acts of kindness (the “good intentions” of the title) may be less effective, even useless, if not optimized for the conditions and the people involved. The monks spent their money and bought the fish, but the fishermen are just going to go out tomorrow and catch them again. If you really want to save the fish, you have to get the fishermen to stop fishing and the market-goers to stop eating fish; the monks also need to forego the pleasure of their daily ritual. In short, you need to deal less with fish and more with people. The book then explores options for doing just that in a range of important development sectors such as micro-savings, education and health.
Dean Karlan is an economist by education and title, but he also has an MBA and has worked in investment banking and technology. His work focuses more on finance and business than on other development-related subjects, and often bears the telltale fingerprints of a creative and entrepreneurial bent. The book’s contents reflect this slant (the first two thirds, roughly, are dedicated to different aspects of finance, the final third collectively to health, education, sex, etc.). Each chapter introduces a major area of inquiry and sets the writers up to outline the current situation for the poor and explain how the most common interventions fall short. The bulk of each chapter then concentrates on describing alternative programs that incorporate knowledge of how people really behave.
This simple structure, linked with conversational writing and first-hand stories, helps to move the reader through some pretty technical research without getting bogged down. The subject is serious but the authors infuse the content with some light word plays and funny story-telling. A chapter on marketing to the poor, for example, tells of the year that raisins enjoyed a coming of age, with 10 percent sales growth.

In biological terms, 1986 was an unremarkable year for the California raisin. It was a dried grape all
the way through, from the first day to the last…Nonetheless, 1986 was a turning point…
The surge in sales had little to do with California raisins themselves, and everything to do with…
the California Raisins, a quartet of singing Claymation raisins that burst onto American television
screens in 1986, brandishing electric guitars and sporting cool sunglasses, and
singing “I Heard It through the Grapevine.”

The direct, colloquial, and at times tongue-in-cheek storytelling is very effective at getting across complex social science concepts in clear terms. The chapter moves on to argue that new ideas or programs that can help people in poverty need to be marketed to the poor so that they buy into them (and, in some cases, buy them). They underscore this point with details from Karlan’s work and the insights he’s gained on marketing products to the poor. The results will surprise some: A study Karlan conducted in South Africa showed that putting a picture of a smiling person on a consumer credit advertisement attracts clients as much as a significantly lower interest rate.
Foundational concepts are interspersed in this way with discussion of experiments or studies. Small observations accumulate to inform larger discussions throughout. In the chapter on group liability, Karlan spends a few paragraphs waxing about the hats worn by some of the women in a microfinance lending group in Peru, before he gets to his core point about the nature of the divided group dynamics he observed:

In fact, my question was about more than millinery. Hats were just felt and ribbon, but
they stood for the very blood of the people who wore them. The hatted women were indígenas,
native Andeans…The unhatted were mestizas, women of mixed or European ancestry.

Most of the research discussed in the book derives from studies with which Karlan has been involved, either directly as a researcher or indirectly in his role as president of Innovations for Poverty Action. This is no small body of work. Yet Karlan’s ubiquity makes the book’s conclusions at times feel more insular than they are.

This sense of insularity is exacerbated by the fact that the authors chose to follow Jake Appel, Karlan’s co-author, into the villages and markets where the poor live and work. Jake, as he is referred to in the book, lived in Ghana as an IPA research assistant, and then traveled around the world gathering material for the book. He is a willing and open interlocutor for the poor people he encounters, and wherever he appears the tone of the writing shifts toward florid description. A few examples:

If you looked at just the Art Deco marquee of the Roxy Theater jutting triangularly
up against the sky, you might think of a tropical city in its colonial heyday. Linen suits; close
steamy night air stirred by a gentle breeze; lazy clatter of palm fronds; the sweet smell of plantains
frying in roadside stalls; music issuing from the door of a nightclub called the Copacabana, a
nightclub with little round tables and a bandstand and good imported gin.

They had traveled along the pitted highway up to Lake Bosumtwi, a vast silvery disc bounded
by the steep crater walls of an extinct volcano. They drove along the water’s edge on a dusty
track that came over a rise and curved to a stop in a flat dirt basin shaded by tall, wide trees.
The village kids must have heard the car coming, for they were on it before it pulled to a stop. They
were a motley crew, different shapes and sizes: tall, skinny, teenage boys projecting authority,
rambunctious younger boys terrorizing one another, prepubsescent girls with little brothers and sisters
on their hips.

The language and content of these expository passages has its closest analog to magazine travel writing, and they so color the proceedings that it is at times difficult to remember that Jake is more than a tourist. This is a shame, because the book also contains some genuinely pleasurable passages when Jake is talking, one on one, with another person. While the former lends itself to excess, the latter is crisp, rich with native cadence and at times very moving. By letting the people they meet talk for themselves, the problems and choices they face feel very real.

Such stylistic concerns may be quibbles. More Than Good Intentions is clearly written for the general reader, one who is largely unfamiliar with the use of RCTs in development. Like all generalist books, it struggles to establish a readable style while remaining true to the complex nature of conducting and interpreting rigorous research. Karlan and Appel do not shy away from that complexity, which is a rare choice, as most authors choose to simplify to research to the point of distortion in an effort to keep the reader. Not here. The studies and what they ultimately tell come through undistorted, and the value is high for any reader who really wants to know where donor funds can make a difference.

Editor’s Note: Our review of Abhijit Banerjee’s and Esther Duflo’s book Poor Economics is here.


Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Comments may be edited for length. Inappropriate comments will not be published.