Tue, May 26, 2015 - Page 9 News List

The power of hope is real

Giving hope can elevate people from a cycle of not only financial poverty, but poverty of freedom and opportunity too

By Nicholas Kristof  /  NY Times News Service

Illustration: Yusha

An awkward truth for bleeding hearts like myself is that there has never been much rigorous evidence that outside aid can sustainably lift people out of poverty.

Sure, evidence is overwhelming that aid can overcome disease, boost literacy and save lives, but raising incomes is trickier — and the evidence in that arena has been squishier.

Now that is changing. A vast randomized trial — the gold standard of evidence — involving 21,000 people in six countries suggests that a particular aid package called the graduation program (because it aims to graduate people from poverty) gives very poor families a significant boost that continues after the program ends. Indeed, it is an investment.

In India, the economic return was a remarkable 433 percent.

The heart of this aid package? A cow. Or a few goats. Even bees.

Why would a cow have such an effect? This gets interesting: There is some indication that one mechanism is hope. Whether in the US or India, families that are stressed and impoverished — trapped in cycles of poverty — can feel a hopelessness that becomes self-fulfilling. Give people reason to hope that they can achieve a better life, and that, too, can be self-fulfilling.

In the graduation program, recipients of livestock were inspired to work more hours, even in areas unrelated to the livestock. They took more odd jobs. Their savings rose. Their mental health improved.

“Poverty is not just poverty of money or income,” said Sir Fazle Abed, founder of a Bangladeshi aid group called BRAC that developed the graduation program.

“We also see a poverty of self-esteem, hope, opportunity and freedom. People trapped in a cycle of destitution often don’t realize their lives can be changed for the better through their own activities. Once they understand that, it’s like a light gets turned on,” he said.

Esther Duflo, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a co-author of the study, agrees.

“The mental health part is absolutely critical. Poverty causes stress and depression and lack of hope, and stress and depression and lack of hope, in turn, cause poverty,” she said.

Could hopelessness and stress create a “poverty trap” in which people surrender to a kind of whirlpool of despair? Some economists and psychologists are finding evidence to support that theory, and experiments are underway to see if raising spirits can lift economic outcomes.

One study found that Ethiopians randomly assigned to watch an hour-long inspirational video ended up saving more and spending more on their children’s education, compared with participants randomly assigned to watch an hour of comedy television. The forward-leaning behaviors persisted in a six-month follow-up.

Researchers are now studying whether exposure to religion might have a similar effect, improving economic outcomes. If so, Marx had the wrong drug in mind: Religion would not be an opiate of the masses, but an amphetamine.

The graduation program is a bit similar to the model of the well-known group Heifer International, which I have written about before and provides “gifts of hope” such as heifers, goats and chickens to impoverished families.

“There was a lot of excitement — with just a hint of smugness — at Heifer at the published results,” Heifer president Pierre Ferrari said.

The graduation model includes a couple of other elements.

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