JEDDAH — In fulfillment of their social responsibilities and inspired by the work of Professor Esther Duflo, winner of the Young French Economist Award 2005 and founder of a research center at the Economics Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Abdul Latif Jameel (ALJ) Company champions efforts around the globe that bring relief to the suffering of millions in the world.
Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel, a Graduate of MIT, arranged a trip to Boston to meet Professor Duflo, essentially to learn more about her and what she was trying to achieve. His interest was raised as she declared that she wanted to seek effective solutions based on empirical research and data rather than just writing about global poverty. The words “poverty” and “action” being used together in the title of the Lab was the instrumental factor. Through rigorous analysis based on randomized trials, aid programs can in turn be evaluated, made more effective, more intelligent and less wasteful in order to really improve the lives of millions of poor people around the world.
Following his meeting with Professor Duflo, Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel asked MIT’s development team how he could make the work being done at the nascent Lab more powerful. He received a funding proposal as per his request and an agreement was reached in 2006 to support this initiative in the economics department at MIT. Further support was extended in April 2009 to enable the Lab to expand its work over the next five years (and well into the future). Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel’s condition was that the primary goal was to improve the lives of 20 million people per annum worldwide. This has been over achieved through the successful adoption by NGOs and governments of many of J-PAL’s solutions to fight poverty. The Lab was renamed the “Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT” in memory of Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel’s late father.
Speaking in an interview Fadi Jameel explained: “Innovative measures using research based strategies are the touchstone to the eradication of poverty around the globe. One such strategy is the use of randomized evaluation as the key to unlock the answers to crucial questions to combat the vicious circle of destitution and poverty. With this insight, a network of projects has emerged globally under the patronage of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, (MIT) with the aim of devising a potentially viable scheme.”
J-PAL was founded on the belief that development programs can be made more effective, creating positive change in the lives of the poor, if policymakers have access to rigorous scientific evidence of what really works.
Professor Duflo, named as one the 100 intellectuals who could change the world, is a unique human being; she embodies the MIT mission and has pioneered groundbreaking research and experiments that go beyond the traditional approaches to resolving the problems that face the world’s poor. Professor Duflo really understands poverty and the work being carried out at J-PAL is part of ongoing efforts to tackle poverty on a global scale. Professor Duflo and her associates have done some marvelous work to date and Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel hopes J-PAL will become a key global focal point for evidence on what really works in reducing poverty.
“Endorsed by its positive results J-PAL has provided the evidential blueprint for future development. The concept is simple. If policymakers are provided with scientifically researched statistics and observations, then much of the enigma in policymaking is dissolved, leading to effective and positive results that put a smile on the faces of millions of poverty stricken people,” Jameel elaborated.
J-PAL has managed and continues to manage three initiatives: the Agricultural Technology Adoption Initiative (ATAI), the Governance Initiative (GI), and the still-nascent Youth Initiative. ATAI funds 23 projects, GI finances 11 projects, dispersing a total of $1.5 million and the Initiative received applications from 12 J-PAL affiliates with a total request of $1.2 million. Given the strong interest in youth employment research, the Initiative is currently pursuing additional finance partners, particularly in regions with strong policymaker interest in this area, such as Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. J-PAL programs include school-based programs, police training skills, and chlorine dispensers for safe water.
Since its establishment J-PAL has trained 1,1014 individuals, worked in 51 countries, on 345 evaluations, and welcomed 70 researchers into its network of research affiliates. More than eight different programs are now engaged in the fight against poverty for the betterment of the standard of living of millions of people around the world.
“The target of the J-PAL program is to improve the quality of the life of 100 million people worldwide in five years. In three years J-Pal has already transformed the lives of 63 million. In fact they are slightly ahead of their target. When the goal is achieved, J-PAL will come out with flying colors,” Fadi Jameel said.
The organization has made progress in setting up its newest regional office, J-PAL Southeast Asia (to be based at the University of Indonesia, in Jakarta). Its staff has grown to more than 100 throughout the global and regional offices.
“With the establishment of regional offices in South Asia, Europe, Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa, J-PAL has been particularly successful in promoting its objectives in the respective regions. These offices provide opportunities to investigate new research frontiers with special local surveillance, to connect more closely with local policymakers, and to launch new capacity-building efforts. A new J-PAL office will support such activities in Southeast Asia,” he added.
J-PAL’s ventures include Agriculture, Education, Environment and Energy, Finance, Health, Labor Markets, and Political Economy and Governance programs. These regional offices and programs are directed by members of the J-PAL Board, which is composed of J-PAL affiliates and senior management. However, J-PAL’s affiliated professors set their own research agenda and raise funds to support their evaluations. At present J-PAL has 190 ongoing evaluations in different countries of which 150 have already been completed.
Initially the programs commenced on a very small scale and later expanded to a larger dimension. Presently, other personnel outside the J-PAL family are trained, randomized evaluations are conducted then the research is validated. This is later formulated into a concrete policy. The idea is that if the policymakers have a clear cut scientific structure and framework as to what is actually effectual then the measures can be taken to make the result operational.
The Lab is intended to become a repository of the best research being done worldwide, using randomized evaluations, to begin training others in more rigorous scientific evaluation methods, and to build efforts to encourage real policy changes based on results.
J-PAL training programs begin with executive education courses in Cambridge (USA) and Chennai (India). Sixty-one workers have been trained and since 2005, J-PAL has held courses at these two sites nearly every year. Its success has been further enhanced with the establishment of additional sites.
The concept is to weed out poverty using the latest technology. The process of expansion is in progress. When the measure is successful then it is followed up by new intervention. Thus J-PAL provides assistance to 28 million people per annum. Partners to these programs include Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), Center for Microfinance, Center for International Development’s Micro-Development Initiative, Center of Evaluation for Global Action, Ideas 42, and the Small Enterprise Finance Center.
“J-PAL and its partners are driven by a shared belief in the power of scientific evidence to understand what really helps the poor. J-PAL’s many partners include Non-profit Organizations (NGOs), universities and governments that run the programs that J-PAL affiliates evaluate; governments, foundations, international development organizations, and NGOs that use J-PAL’s policy lessons on what works in poverty reduction to scale up the most cost-effective programs.” Fadi Jameel asserted.
The program is already making a difference in various countries, and each policy is unique, designed to suit the region. All policies may not be functional in all localities as each area is specific, and thus each researcher is a pioneer with groundbreaking observations and experiments that go beyond traditional approaches. Each researcher really empathizes with the poverty situation.
“Massive efforts have been made to find the optimum method to utilize new inventions and new movements make a difference in the lives of those who actually need assistance. It is a very bold and advanced step. Though the program is an organic process, it has become hugely successful. Researchers are engaged in the analysis of actual life situations and the results have been found to be groundbreaking and quite often it’s totally unexpected,” observed Fadi Jameel.
Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel is a pioneer in his own right, who recognizes the technicalities of the problem. Under his benefaction J-PAL will be the focal point in eliminating poverty. The mission of J-PAL is to reduce poverty by ensuring that policy is based on scientific evidence, and research is translated into action. It is a conglomeration of facts and figures and human needs. Professor Duflo’s innovative schemes have indeed sent waves of interest everywhere.
“Professor Duflo has set the pace through three main activities. Firstly, by conducting “Rigorous Impact Evaluations”, J-PAL researchers conduct randomized evaluations to test and improve the effectiveness of programs, and finally evaluations are made and policies aimed at reducing poverty. Secondly, we have the Policy Outreach in which J-PAL’s policy group analyzes and disseminates research results and builds partnerships with policymakers to ensure that policies are driven by evidence, and effective programs are scaled up.
Finally through “Capacity Building,” J-PAL equips practitioners with the expertise to carry out their own rigorous evaluations through training courses and joint research projects,” Jameel explained.
J-PAL Programs are led by members of J-PAL’s Board of Directors, who have the primary role of providing intellectual leadership to J-PAL’s research efforts in that area. This includes helping to define the research agenda and taking the lead on special Initiatives in each program. These Initiatives are made possible through funds dedicated to a specific J-PAL Program. Co-chairs of the particular program are responsible for selecting evaluations of promising interventions for financing.
Programs also provide guidance to J-PAL’s policy group on turning research results into material that policymakers can easily access, including cost-effective analyses and policy bulletins. The policy group then works to disseminate results of J-PAL research to policymakers including governments, NGOs, international development organizations, foundations and donors, through presentations, conferences, seminars, and policy publications. The policy group also works with these organizations to help scale up interventions that are found to be effective. – SG