IDC Harvard: Micro evidence, macro learning

Last Saturday I attended Harvard’s International Development Conference (IDC) as a representative of the SISGI Group. The IDC is an annual conference organized by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.


Students from many different universities and many parts of the world (Latin America, Asia) were eager to hear from the experience of professionals and academics.  It was a very interactive conference, where constant interaction with the speakers and the attendants was necessary and facilitated by the networking lunches, case competitions and social events. Professionals from the public, private, non-profit or international sector came to share their experiences and express their opinions and concerns over the current challenges of international development. Every year, they focus on a series of thematic themes regarding international development and this year the four panel tracks that were governance, resources for development, human and social development, and system development. Major questions included things like how to address environmental problems? How to make the development community more efficient? How to make sure that the strategies target adequate human and social development?

A key takeaway of the conference was the importance of focusing on local and small problems when wanting to create sustainable change. In all the panels that I attended, the idea that seemed to prevail was that macro solutions to the problems of individuals had not been as effective. Many of the panelists were promoting directed and oriented solutions to poverty. Abhijit V. Banerjee, final speaker and author of Poor Economics, summarized this idea with the sentence “Micro evidence, Macro learning”. This sentence describes the phenomenon that although we do know “next to nothing” as to how to generate growth, we may know a little more about how to change children’s lives. The circumstances of growth depend on many different factors and the best way to make the most effective change is by making use of the “local knowledge” of the people.

Prof. Banerjee challenges the assumed causality between growth and poverty reduction. It is a problem of causality: does growth reduce poverty or does poverty reduction lead to growth? He stated that there is no clear evidence for a trade off between growth and poverty reduction. Event if it were, the attempts to reduce poverty by promoting growth is not significant. He further pointed out that efforts must be focused where they are the most effective, and that always happens at the “micro” level.

Listening to similar claims from different speakers made me realize that an important shift is taking place in the development discourse. There is no longer a belief of an easy solution to poverty. The idea of a one size fits all solution to poverty has been abandoned, or at least is quickly vanishing. In the past, what we’ve been able to measure has often defined what we do and how we impact, thus we have focused on growth. But we’ve come to realize that measuring aggregates is not good enough, and that many times the “devil is in the details”, in the local implications of the actions. That is why the solution will always depend on the environment, the people, the resources, and the circumstances. By focusing on facts, learning from innovations and testing, the impacts will likely be more sustainable. In the future, we have to focus on what we know works and stay away from what we know doesn’t work, and this can only be achievable by focusing impact at the micro level.

By the end of the conference, I think many students were encouraged but also feeling somehow perplexed. Indeed, the talks changed the framework through which many of us perceived development. The challenges that lie ahead are more complex than what we would like it to be, as there is no clear solution. But that makes it the more interesting because the opportunities to have a sustainable impact are greater. As for now, I think the first important challenge is how we can best start sharing all the “micro” experiences in the development arena in order to facilitate further understanding of the complexities that we are facing.


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