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One of the perennial problems “experts” have in dealing with the poor is the idea that because someone doesn’t have much money, they’re therefore stupid. Surely one of the most discouraging introductions anyone in the inner cities—in Philadelphia, Jakarta, or Rio de Janeiro—can have is to have someone knock on the door and say, “Hi! I’m from (think tank/ development agency/ large foundation)! I’ve studied you! Here’s what you need!”

I should note that this attitude transcends race. In 1986, I went to the Kenilworth Gardens public housing complex on assignment for Reader’s Digest. There I was told about a visit made in 1982 by Patricia Roberts Harris, a prominent African American who was Jimmy Carter’s secretary of Health and Human Services and who had lived in Washington for much of her adult life. She went to Kenilworth Gardens because she was challenging Marion Barry for mayor (she lost).

Harris explained that she was pleasantly surprised by what she saw. What was surprising? “Your house—it’s so clean!” She had the notion that poor people had to wallow in filth because they were poor.

Michael Holman, writing in the Financial Times, shows how World Bank development experts made he same mistake Harris did. Holman, a one-time Africa editor for the Financial Times who has written a satirical novel about the World Bank, writes his column as if he has uncovered some secret internal document from the bank, but he is actually quoting from the bank’s annual World Development Report, particularly chapter 10.

The bank, to its credit, decided to conduct a “red team” exercise to check the premises of its program officers and see if the assumptions they made about what poor people thought were accurate. The authors of the report say that this practice of red teaming may well have begun in Roman times; Roman emperors, the story goes, asked the engineers of a new bridge to sleep under it for several days. The idea was that these builders wouldn’t build a shoddy bridge that would collapse on top of them.

The World Bank surveyed 1,850 people in its offices and then surveyed an equivalent number of poor people in Jakarta, Lima, and Nairobi. The bank found that:

  • Forty-two percent of bank staffers said that a majority of poor people in Nairobi would agree “vaccines are risky because they can cause sterilization.” In fact, 11 percent of the poor in Nairobi agreed with this statement. About 80 percent of Kenyans are vaccinated.
  • The development professionals were asked if they agreed with the statement “What happens to me in the future mostly depends on me.” Around 70 percent of the experts agreed with this statement, and they predicted that only 20 percent of the poor thought they could improve their own lives. In fact, between 80 and 90 percent of the poor thought they could control their own destiny.
  • The professionals were also asked if they agreed with the statement “I feel helpless in dealing with the problems of life.” Less than 5 percent did, but they thought that about half of the poor would feel helpless. While this was true of Kenyans, only 30 percent of the Peruvian poor surveyed, and less than 10 percent of the Indonesian poor, thought they were helpless.

The survey researchers at the World Bank also presented staffers with a scenario where they were supervising a five-year project in a tropical country to preserve forest habitat. A new government comes in and says that they want to build dams for hydropower, which would force a lot of people to move, but they also want the World Bank to finish the forest project. What should project managers do?

The researchers gave staff members a variety of scenarios and found that the farther along the project was, the more likely staff members were to continue to commit funds to the venture. World Bank staffers told a project was 70 percent complete were more likely to ask to commit the additional 30 percent than they were to commit 70 percent of the funds for a project that was only 30 percent complete. The staffers also said their colleagues would also commit more money to a project the longer the project went on.

The staffers were committing what economists call the “sunk cost fallacy,” the idea that a project must be worthwhile because a substantial amount of money has already been spent. In Great Philanthropic Mistakes, I call this the law of motion in foundations: that projects, once started, continue endlessly unless stopped by an outside force, such as a congressional investigation or a riot.

“Development professionals can make consequential mistakes even when they are diligent, sincere, technically competent, and experienced,” the report concludes.

Largely because of the organizational imperatives within which they and their counterparts operate and the primary reference groups with which they associate most frequently—and thus whose approval they covet (or whose opprobrium they hope to avoid)—such professionals can consistently contribute to outcomes biased against those on whose behalf they are working.

What holds true for World Bank development professionals also holds true for foundation program officers. If I was in a foundation and poverty fighting was on my agenda, I’d pay careful attention to what the World Bank has to say.

P.S. The World Development Report, like other World Bank reports I have read, is surprisingly well written for an institutional report. I have no idea who writes and edits World Bank publications, but they have some very talented people on their staff. Anyone who reads The Economist or the Financial Times would find the World Development Report stimulating and enjoyable.

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