CIPR | Center For Inter-American Policy & Research

Tulane University

Human Development Lecture with Ariel Fiszbein

April 25th, 2012

Lecture Synopsis

Ariel Fiszbein
About Human Development: a conversation on concepts and evidence

On April 9, 2012, Tulane University and the Center for Inter-American Policy and Research welcomed Ariel Fiszbein, Chief Economist for the Human Development Network of The World Bank. Fiszbein presented the key concepts that drive the Bank’s work in the area of human development, illustrated with evidence from case studies around the globe. Fiszbein stressed that, from a researcher’s perspective, human development, or the enabling of individuals to be productive and achieve their full potential as members of society, is a worthy and important area of involvement that crosses academic disciplines. A four-point framework underpins the area of human development: a lifecycle approach, a multi-faceted approach, an understanding of human behavior, and a focus on governance. Fiszbein presented three cases to illustrate how these aspects come together to help advance human development, namely, skills development, improving service delivery, and smart transfers.

In explaining skills development, Fiszbein revealed intriguing data that showed, perhaps counter-intuitively, that large training programs for work skills are not the most effective in promoting human development. This is because there are other skills, including generic life skills, which need equal or more attention. In Thailand, for example, the skill most demanded by employers is English proficiency, while technical skills ranks last. Since many such skills, including language skills and impulse control, are acquired in ages zero to five, the single most important factor for improving labor skills is better early childhood development. This suggests that most skill development programs, while well intentioned, are not focused on the priorities that most matter for human development and could be wasteful and ineffective.

Service delivery, the second example presented, is frequently inadequate in developing countries. Healthcare and education in India, for example, are hindered by the inefficient means through which they are delivered. In these areas more inputs will not necessarily equal better outcomes. As Fiszbein explained, behavior and context are part of the equation. Improving service delivery may require improvements in provider incentives or the empowerment of consumers to demand better services. In the latter case, information can be a powerful tool for accountability, as the case of Uganda illustrates. In 1995, major leakages in primary school funding were reduced when newspapers began reporting the amounts sent to different schools from 1996-2001. Schools became accountable to local citizens who gained more knowledge of the inadequacies of the school system. However, Fiszbein warned that, while informative, these cases cannot provide universal solutions, and often we do not know if applying a similar measure to a different area will provide similar results. Interventions must always be tailored to the particular context in which they are applied.

The final example focused on “smart transfers”, Fiszbein’s preferred term for conditional cash transfers, a rapidly growing policy instrument for human development around the world. These transfers offer a small compensation to people in poverty as long as certain conditions are met. Usually, the conditions refer to schooling and healthcare check-ups for children, aspects that directly impact their human capital. Generally speaking, smart transfers work to reduce poverty by improving consumption, as well as education and health levels. However, impact evaluations reveal that there are potential pitfalls. For instance, while children are going to school more it is uncertain whether they are also learning more.

Fiszbein explained how these cases related to the four-point framework. All three cases show the importance of the life cycle approach, which involves starting early and sustaining investments. They also show that interventions are multi-faceted, requiring coordination between different sectors. The success of smart transfers illustrates the importance of understanding the drivers of human behavior and adapting policy interventions so that they are compatible with, and conducive to, actions that foster human development. And the relevance of governance mechanisms in the improvement of education funding in Uganda highlights the importance of focusing on the “how” and not just the “what” in human development measures. It is clear, Fiszbein says, that we can make a difference over time with this deliberate approach as long as we seek to understand and design accordingly. Evidence-based efforts stand a much better chance of increasing human development than simply “throwing money at problems”.