A Nobel Prize for the Effective Altruists. But will it make a difference?

by Sasha Alyson

Congratulations to the newest Nobel laureates. But the developing world should hold the champagne.

For seventy years, wealthier countries have promised to help the rest of the world develop. Whether that’s gone well depends who you ask, but all agree, there have been mistakes along the way.

Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer received the 2019 Nobel Prize in economics for introducing a different approach, using rigorous testing to see what actually improves education, health, and other conditions in the global South. They’ve turned up many surprises. In the 1990s, for example, Kremer found that two popular approaches – printing more textbooks, and providing free school lunches – did not improve learning outcomes in Kenyan schools. Teaching style was what mattered.

This data-based approach, often called effective altruism, is a breath of fresh air compared with others, and the three laureates well deserve their honor. There is talk that the recognition brought by the Nobel Prize will change development work, by putting an emphasis on actual impact. I’ve been doing literacy and education work for fourteen years and I regretfully disagree. Any impact will be minor.

The more optimistic predictions rest on two assumptions: First, that not enough is known about what works and so more data will make a big difference. Second, that the big players – U.N. agencies, government sources such as USAID, and international charities – are primarily motivated by a desire to promote meaningful development. Here’s what the evidence says about these two assumptions: They are both wrong.

  • Since 9/11, USAID has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to print textbooks for Pakistani schoolchildren. Pakistan in 2015 could well be different from Kenya in 1995; more textbooks may be worth a try. But not if USAID isn’t paying attention. But the Institute for War & Peace Reporting found in one case that textbooks on which USAID had spent $90 million were riddled with errors, and were written at such a high level that even the teachers couldn’t understand them. Another researcher found that most Pakistani schoolchildren cannot read, and textbooks were often in a language they did not speak anyway, and thus were pointless. Did USAID’s evaluations find differently? I can find no evidence that USAID evaluated its textbook programs at all.
  • This headline sounds encouraging: “UNESCO study shows effectiveness of mobile phones in promoting reading and literacy in developing countries.” The Unesco press release claims a “revolution in reading” in seven countries. Time magazine and others ran the good-news story. But it was fake news. The study did not even attempt to figure out if mobile phones increase literacy, and a year later, Unesco quietly admitted that “clear evidence is lacking” for such a claim. Why was Unesco so eager make unwarranted assertions? Here’s one guess: Unesco seeks corporate partners to benefit “from a strong image transfer by associating yourself with a reputable international brand and a prestigious UN agency.” Nokia, the cellphone company, funded Unesco to carry out this study and publish the report.
  • Toms Shoes created a much-copied marketing campaign: Buy a pair of Toms shoes, and the company would give a pair to “a child in need.” Toms suggested that this would make once-barefoot children healthier, better schooled, and more independent, and commissioned an independent study to prove this. But the study found that 99.8% of the children who got a free pair of shoes already had shoes, and the free pair did not make them healthier or better schooled. It did, however, make them feel more dependent on external aid. Toms Shoes doesn’t tell customers about this study. It continues giving away free shoes, claiming that recipients will become healthier, better schooled, and more independent.

A lack of evidence was not the issue in these cases. Evidence was unwanted, or data got in the way and so it was ignored, because the agency involved was never data-driven; it was funding-driven. Large institutions routinely prioritize bigger budgets and self-perpetuation ahead of their stated goals. That doesn’t change simply because they’re doing development work. It may help to have more information about what works; some people will put that to good use. But foreign aid primarily seeks to benefit those who are calling the shots. Effective altruism doesn’t change that.


USAID: “Afghanistan: New Textbooks Baffle Teachers.” Feb. 13, 2013. Institute for War & Peace Reporting.

USAID, Second report: Why Can’t Pakistani Children Read? by Nadia Naviwala. July 2019, The Wilson Center.

Unesco press release: “UNESCO study shows effectiveness of mobile phones in promoting reading and literacy in developing countries,” undated.

Unesco reports: Reading in the Mobile Era, 2014, Unesco.

Unesco acknowledges that “clear evidence is lacking of [cell phones’] impact on improving literacy skills,” in Education for All 2000-2015 Achievements and Challenges, 2015, Unesco.

Toms Shoes: There were 2 reports, both can be downloaded from Bruce Wydick USFCA Research.

Top photo: Ugandan youngsters display free backpacks that USAID gave to them. Passing out free goods creates warm feelings and happy photographs… and advertising for USAID, which puts many photos like this online. But Ugandans have for centuries been capable of carrying things for themselves without help from USAID. Why does the agency spend its budget trying to suggest they can no longer do so?

The author: Sasha Alyson has been active in literacy work in Southeast Asia since 2006. He writes about how development projects frequently undermine the countries they claim to help.

Related stories

Other stories of interest