On the perils of embedded experiments

There is growing interest in ‘embedded experiments’, conducted by researchers and policymakers as a team. Aside from their potential scale, the main attraction of these experiments is that they seem to facilitate speedy translation of research into policy. Discussing a case study from Bihar, Jean Drèze argues that this approach carries a danger of distorting both policy and research. 

Evidence-based policy is the rage, to the extent that even village folk in Jharkhand (where I live) sometimes hold forth about the importance of ‘ebhidens’, as they call it. No one, of course, would deny the value of bringing evidence to bear on public policy, as long as evidence is understood in a broad sense and does not become the sole arbiter of decision-making. However, sometimes evidence-based policy gets reduced to an odd method that consists of using randomised controlled trials (RCTs) to find out ‘what works’, and then ‘scale up’ whatever works. That makes short shrift of the long bridge that separates evidence from policy. Sound policy requires not only evidence – broadly understood – but also a good understanding of the issues, considered value judgements, and inclusive deliberation (Drèze 2018a, 2020a).

Enormous energy has been spent on the quest for rigorous evidence, much less on the integrity of the process that leads from evidence to policy. As illustrated in an earlier contribution to Ideas for India (Drèze et al. 2020), it is not uncommon for the scientific findings of an RCT to be embellished in the process. This follow-up post presents another case study that may help to convey the problem. It also illustrates a related danger – casual jumps from evidence to policy advice. The risk of a short-circuit is particularly serious in ‘embedded experiments’, where the research team works ‘from within’ a partner government in direct collaboration with policymakers.

The case study pertains to an experiment conducted in Bihar in 2012-2013 and reported in Banerjee, Duflo, Imbert, Mathew and Pande (2020)1. This is a large-scale, influential experiment by some of the leading lights of the RCT movement – indeed, a formidable quartet of first-rate economists reinforced by one of India’s brightest civil servants, Santhosh Mathew. The high technical standards of the study are not in doubt, and nor is the integrity of the authors. And yet, I would argue that something is amiss in their accounts of the findings and policy implications of this study.

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Big business’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic highlights a problem of incentives in South Africa

The COVID-19 pandemic has swept across the global economy, causing havoc and leaving many economies teetering on the brink of economic and social collapse. Moreover, the arrival of a second and now third wave of infections and a further mutation of the virus is driving the economy further into peril and uncertainty. The announcement by Cyril Ramaphosa, back in March 2019, that two of South Africa’s wealthiest families and the pinnacle of big business, the Rupert and Oppenheimer families, would be donating R1 billion each was met with admiration from all corners of the country. These commitments have since been matched by the Motsepe group of companies and Naspers, donating R1.5 billion. To date, the fund has amassed over R3.22 billion in pledges from a wide array of private, public, and political donors.

Responses of this type are understandable when combining the already bleak outlook for the South African economy with a significant and potentially catastrophic supply shock. However, a question that may be playing on many South Africans minds is: why, given the fact that South Africa’s economy has long struggled with growth and several structural issues, is this response from big business only coming now in the face of a global pandemic? An easy answer may be that there has not yet been an event of this magnitude for big business to respond. However, a counter to this argument is that businesses should continuously be re-investing their profits regardless of the economy’s health.

South Africa has a long history of the inefficient use of profits, which favours hording cash and conducting unproductive investments such as mergers and acquisitions. These uses of profits are a direct result of the skewed incentives facing the agents of many large companies. For instance, many CEOs are incentivised through sizeable bonus packages to maximise the shareholders’ value rather than focusing on the long-term health and sustainability of the business. This short-term view causes CEOs to opt to retain earnings rather than embark on risky research, development, and innovation endeavours that often fail but may result in enormous payoffs if they succeed economically and socially. Short-termism is a result of a corruption of the idea of value creation where price is associated too closely with true value, nuturing an entrenched system of extraction that contributrs to worsening economic and social conditions. This is something the professor in the Economics of Innovation and Public Value at University College London, and director of the Institute for Innovation and Public Value, Mariana Mazzucato laments in her book The Value of Everything.

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Why Austerity is Not the Solution to the Policing Crisis

“Defund the Police” is a powerful slogan. It articulates a vision of a better world that so many of us on the left want to live in. A world free from the arbitrary state violence on display in the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Eric Garner. At the same time, either implicitly or explicitly, it also expresses a strong desire to address the problems that afflict American society with redistribution instead of violence through the provisioning of public goods such as education, health care, housing, and the like. To be sure, I want more than anything to live in this world, one without policing and with robust social democratic programs like universal single-payer health care and guaranteed housing. However, the politics of defund the police is not how we get from here to there.    

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Does India’s Gender Budget Need a Rethink?

India was a pioneering country when it first introduced a Gender Budget in 2001 as part of its annual Financial Year Budget. Gender Budgeting (GB) highlights the inherently different experiences in receiving financial and welfare support from the state due to their differing needs, priorities and access and serves to ameliorate the barriers to economic inclusion faced by women through a plethora of state financing. 

India’s Gender Budget Statement (GBS) has been released in two parts since 2005. Each ministry highlights allocations that are – women specific allocations where 100% of the budget for a specific scheme is assigned to women and a ‘pro-women’s’ allocation, where at least 30% of the budget for a specific scheme has been assigned to women to enhance affirmative action.

Figure 1: Proportion of women’s allocation in India’s Gender Budget

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What is a Developed Country?

Any discussion of economic development – either implicitly or explicitly – contains the distinction between developed countries and developing (or under-developed) countries. While there are many theories on what promotes development and how best to achieve it, in all cases the goal is for a country to eventually become ‘developed’.

This begs the question – what is a developed country? There are at least three common definitions, which are presented below. These definitions overlap in many cases, but in others they are at odds. This piece argues that a broader definition is needed in light of recent failures of several ‘developed’ countries to cope with shocks ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic to natural disasters.

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The Use and Abuse of the Phrase “Global Public Good”

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Photo by Miroslav Petrasko

A flawed understanding of the concept of “public good” hampers the fight for equitable access to the upcoming COVID-19 vaccine

The term “global public good” has been used in very different ways by policy makers, economists and others. The term “global” is not particularly controversial, and in this context is generally understood to involve cases where the benefits of the service or good impact residents of more than one country, even if not necessarily the whole world. The term “public good” is subject to more diverse uses, often depending upon one’s educational or professional training.

For many people, perhaps most, the term “public good” is loosely defined to include cases where governments are willing to undertake measures to expand access, with universal access at least an aspirational goal. However, among the other influential definitions of “public good” is one that is exceptionally restrictive. A proposal by Paul Samuelson first published in 1954, meant at the time as an extreme and polar case, has found its way into countless articles, textbooks and academic courses, and has parameters that are rarely met in practice. At times, Samuelson’s 66-year-old paper is actually an obstacle to collective efforts to supply and distribute goods that have considerable impact on society.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents an astonishing global challenge regarding the control of the pandemic and the reduction of harm. The health impacts are large, particularly for older patients, and growing unpredictably, and the pandemic has had an enormous social and economic impact on everyone, with no obvious end in sight.Read More »

Pandemics and the State of Welfare

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In the midst of what might possibly be the worst recession since 2008, and staring down the barrel of overwhelming economic, social and human disaster, there is widespread recognition that increased welfare spending is critical not just to contain the fallout from the pandemic, but also to effectively combat it. By ensuring timely delivery of essentials and basic income support, one can minimise the chances of people venturing outside, and hence contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

There are valid concerns raised as to whether these measures go far enough in helping workers or whether institutional mechanisms will be able to convert announcements into genuine progress on the ground. This blog post analyses the arguments behind the justification of introducing welfare schemes in today’s times, and the underlying economic logic behind them. 

The increase in welfare provision is sorely needed in a catastrophic situation such as the one we face. But while the readiness to deploy instruments to achieve this is unprecedented, the measures themselves are not. Much of the welfare measures rolled out by governments are standard income support and welfare packages, larger in scale but with no fundamental changes in their basic design. Much of these measures, moreover, have been advocated by many to deal with fallouts from economic crises in the past, only to be met with middling levels of success and acceptance by the powers that be. The impact of the coronavirus has shown us how quickly governments can turn over the fundamental principles of austerity if they are pushed to do so. 

This post does not simply aim to criticise government policies of the past in light of current actions, but to outline a warning for the future. The problem of economic distress will not go away once the pandemic does, because then we will be dealing with battered economies, high unemployment, and weak to non-existent growth. In such times, when the threat of the virus has ebbed, there will be calls to roll back the welfare measures of the government. These calls will have to be countered stringently, on the grounds that the need to protect welfare and ensure government assistance is not contingent simply on the existence of a virus, but on the inability of the economic machine to provide for welfare.Read More »

COVID-19: A Bigger Challenge to the Indian Healthcare System

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Covid-19 has reached the community spread phase. Developed or underdeveloped, rich or poor, all countries are affected by this today. However, they are facing these challenges – shortages in medical supplies and difficulty stopping its spread – in different magnitudes. In an attempt to stop the spread to save lives, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day lockdown, starting from 25th of March. Developing countries across the globe are looking down quickly, after witnessing the helplessness of the US, UK and the rest of Europe – though these are the countries with much stronger healthcare systems and much better availability of doctors. In Italy, doctors are forced to prioritize whom to save and whom to leave untreated.

India’s healthcare infrastructure is incapable of dealing with this crisis today. Shortages in medical supplies and an inability to provide adequate testing are the major issues. However, the Prime Minister’s announcement to allocate 15,000 crore rupees (USD 2 billion) for building infrastructure can strengthen the fight against coronavirus. Also, state governments are trying to expand facilities to deal with this situation.

The majority of Indians finance their healthcare themselves. About 62 percent of households’ expenditure on healthcare in 2017 was made through out-of-pocket payments. In comparison, the equivalent figures for the European Union (excluding UK) is 22.29 percent and for the USA and UK it is 11 percent and 16 percent, respectively (Table 1). While many patients diagnosed with Covid-19 will need Intensive Care Unit (ICU), there is no clarity from the government regarding who will pay these expenses. Read More »