UPDATE: Monday March 17, 2014 5:08pm World Bank responds (see end of this post)

WARNING: the contents of this message are for private entertainment purposes only. Any unauthorized duplication of this message to score cheap points is strictly prohibited.

Email from World Bank, January 27:

I am writing to you in reference to a recent publication: “The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor” by William Easterly.
As part of our high priority events, we’d like to invite the author for a book signing event…  

The events program has hosted internationally renowned speakers including:  Amartya Sen, Angus Deaton…Christy Turlington … as well as numerous Heads of States and Nobel Laureates. 

Email from World Bank, February 5:

I am happy to confirm the event on March 18 from 12-2pm.

Could you please also send me a copy of the book, so we can provide it to a potential moderator.

Email from World Bank, February 6:

We are delighted and look forward to a great and exciting event on March 18. The event will be inside the main Preston auditorium (1818 H Street NW). 

Would it also be possible to send me a galley of the book? 

Email from World Bank, February 13:

Thank you very much for arranging the World Bank book event with Professor Easterly on “The Tyranny of Experts” for March 18, we very much appreciate it. We would like to convey our sincerest apologies though as we have inadvertently overbooked ourselves and have overlapping events that day. Given the large number of high-profile events our very small team is handling, we overlooked and provided you with this date prematurely. We will shortly come back to you with new dates so we may find a mutually suitable one.

February 27 In response to inquiry about rescheduling, World Bank emails back that they hope to work together again at some point in the future.

March 17 World Bank response: Asked to comment on this post last Friday, David Theis, Chief of Media Relations at the World Bank responded with this statement at 5pm, Monday March 17 (a snow day in DC):

“I have confirmed that we indeed had a double booking, so apologies for the scheduling mix-up. We would be more than happy to have you at the Bank and will be in touch to find a date. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

 

“Evidence-based policies” are in vogue. But how do you synthesize the evidence base? People often engage in “vote counting”: reading the literature and consciously or subconsciously summing up the number of findings for a positive effect, a negative effect, or no effect for a particular program. The group with the greatest number wins.

Unfortunately, vote counting is not an ideal method to synthesize the evidence. The biggest problem is that some “no effect” papers were unlikely to find an effect even if there was one. Many studies in development use too small of a sample to be likely to find an effect, so the fact that their results are insignificant is not actually all that informative.

An alternative technique, meta-analysis, can aggregate many insignificant findings and sometimes transform them into a jointly significant result. It also allows flexibility in weighting studies differently, since all studies are not equal.

In most of the cases in which vote counting and meta-analysis diverge, vote counting reports an insignificant result and meta-analysis reports a significant positive result. For example, both conditional and unconditional cash transfer programs often had several “no effect” results — “cash transfers don’t work!” These types of programs have effects on a very broad range of outcomes, but because some or all of them are only tangentially related to the intervention, it’s harder to see an effect in any one study. But if you aggregate the insignificant results on labour force participation, grade promotion or test scores through meta-analysis then they become significant — “cash transfers work!”

The error of overstating the strength of “no effect” results through vote counting is all the worse given that “no effect” does not really mean no effect. The common misconception is that failure to reject the null hypothesis of no effect means we have accepted the null hypothesis of no effect, but that is simply untrue. Absence of a positive finding becomes a finding of absent effect, but this is not what the test says. Perhaps with a bit more data the result would become significant.

How big is this problem? Preliminary analysis of a database I have assembled of development studies, through a group called AidGrade, suggests that the meta-analysis results for a particular intervention-outcome combination diverge from the results that would have been obtained using vote counting about a third of the time. Vote counting actually gives very similar results as to what one would get by just looking at a single paper selected at random from the entire literature; not a great foundation on which to base policy recommendations. If we want to use rigorous evidence, we have to be rigorous about how we use rigorous evidence.

(Following post is authored by Eva Vivalt, Post-Doc at the Development Research Institute)

The World Bank recently surprised applicants to its 2014 Young Professionals (YP) Program with the news that the YP program is cancelled for this year.  I have been unable to find any public announcement on this strange development.

The World Bank’s website calls the program, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary, “the preeminent program preparing global development leaders”, and it is the main entry-point for professional staff. The sudden cancelling of the recruitment scheme after it had already solicited two rounds of application materials (at a painful cost in time and effort to the applicants) could suggest some combination of unprofessionalism and organizational disarray.

Asked for comment, David Theis, Chief of Media at the World Bank, provided the following rationale:

 The World Bank Group is currently undergoing a major restructuring — the first in a generation — to better align the entire organization to achieve its ambitious goals of ending extreme poverty by 2030 and boosting shared prosperity, particularly for the lowest 40 percent in developing countries. Because of the institutional changes underway, which are expected to continue into the next fiscal year, the Bank Group has decided to postpone the recruitment of the 2014 Young Professional cohort until 2015, when the program will re-open.

The restructuring of the bank into 14 “Global Practices” is indeed a major shift. However, the YP program continued during previous restructurings, including the large ones in 1997 and 1987.

Jim Kim has committed to cutting $400 million over the next three years, and several divisions are in a hiring freeze. The cutbacks have been cited as a reason for the program’s suspension, though it is likely only one part of the story since the savings from cancelling one year of the YP program are small.

The head of the YP program left a few months ago, so it’s possible with less internal support, the program foundered. Even some senior management were surprised by the program’s temporary suspension. The YP program has a venerable history as a vehicle to recruit future leaders at the Bank. Its cancellation is a shock to those who follow the institution.

(in the category: nonfiction but not in my own field)

I recently re-read a book that I first read almost 30 years ago, which I have remembered ever since as perhaps the best book I ever read.

Re-reading after 30 years is a severe test. Many other books that the younger me liked have failed this test — either because they are dated or because I’ve changed.

This book passed the test. The only blemish was a bad but short section on economics in the 20th century.

The book is a marvelously readable account of the history of discovery, both geographic and scientific.

The book is The Discoverers, by Daniel Boorstin, the Librarian of Congress from 1975 to 1987, first published in 1983.

UPDATE 12:10pm 5/7/2013: The reference on Twitter to “Hollywood celebrity…” is an experiment in fake link bait described at the end of this post.

eskinder nega

This is a letter just released from Eskinder Nega, a peaceful blogger and democracy activist serving an 18-year sentence in Kaliti jail in Addis Ababa, courtesy of the Ethiopian government supported by World Bank, US, and UK aid:

Individuals can be penalised, made to suffer (oh, how I miss my child) and even killed. But democracy is a destiny of humanity which can not be averted. It can be delayed but not defeated.

…I accept my fate, even embrace it as serendipitous. I sleep in peace, even if only in the company of lice, behind bars. The same could not be said of my incarcerator though they sleep in warm beds, next to their wives, in their home.

Why should the rest of the world care? Horace said it best: mutate nomine de te tabula narratur. “Change only the name and this story is also about you.” Where ever justice suffers our common humanity suffers, too.

I will live to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It may or may not be a long wait. Whichever way events may go, I shall persevere.

UPDATE 12:10 pm 5/7/2013 “BREAKING: Hollywood celebrity charged with embezzling funds from global poverty NGO” This is a fake story that links you to this true story on Eskinder Nega.

The experiment is about why do we care about some misuses of aid an awful lot, but aid misused to finance violations of rights of brave individuals in poor countries is not amongst them?