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A Charity That's Not Afraid To Fail


Three million people granted access to clean water, 4 million children given food. When charities publicize their work, they tend to focus on successes. But today, a story about a charity that's proud to announce that it's failing. NPR's Nurith Aizenman explains.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: In business, if you're trying to sell a product that people don't have use for, they won't buy it.

KAREN LEVY: You run out of money (laughter) OK, right? I mean, you shut down.

AIZENMAN: That's Karen Levy. For the last 20 years, she's worked in the business of aid, trying to help the world's poor where, she says, that rule does not apply.

LEVY: Historically, what got funded was good proposals, not necessarily good, impactful programs.

AIZENMAN: Levy, who trained in social policy and planning at the London School of Economics, says the trouble is the people being served by aid programs are not the ones paying. The bill goes to donors, foundations, governments that for years have largely had to base their decisions on whether a program sounded good.

LEVY: You can keep an ineffective program funded for years if you're good at fundraising.

AIZENMAN: But over the last decade, there's been a major push by economists to do rigorous research on poverty - basically run experiments to figure out which solutions actually work. Levy works for a charity called Evidence Action whose mission is to look for the most promising experiments, then scale them up massively.

LEVY: Reach the lives of millions or tens of millions of people.

AIZENMAN: And at every stage, it runs tests to see if its programs are still working.

LEVY: If we find that they're not having impact, then we'll shut it down.

AIZENMAN: Now that commitment is being put to the test with one of Evidence Action's most prominent ventures - a program to help rural farmhands in Bangladesh during what's called the lean season, a three-month period every winter when the fields lie empty and there's no work. Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak is a development economist at Yale.

AHMED MUSHFIQ MOBARAK: You see that up to 40, 45 percent of people report that they regularly miss meals.

AIZENMAN: Instead of three meals, they'll cut down to two. It's particularly hard on children.

MOBARAK: It can lead to stunting.

AIZENMAN: Which leads to cognitive problems. Traditional aid - food distribution, food-for-work programs - is too expensive to reach all of these farmhands, so Mobarak had an idea. Instead of trying to bring jobs to where people in rural areas are...

MOBARAK: Encourage people to move, go to various towns or cities so that they could go find work for themselves.

AIZENMAN: Offer them a tiny loan, around $20, to buy a bus ticket to the closest urban area where, for the duration of the lean season, they can get a job, like pulling a rickshaw. Mobarak's early tests were so successful, Evidence Action decided to take it up. Their first round of loans in 2014 targeted 3,500 households. Here's Levy again.

LEVY: I happened to be in the D.C. office when the results came in, and we were, you know, a bunch of geeks jumping up and down in the conference room looking at the tables.

AIZENMAN: The loan roughly doubled the number of people who decided to try their luck in the city, and those who went earned enough to give their families an additional meal each day. In the aid world, results like that...

LEVY: Yeah, that certainly doesn't come along every day.

AIZENMAN: Soon, Evidence Action was going big, raising $11 million to scale up to 160,000 households in 2017. Then this past fall, the results from that 2017 round came in.

LEVY: It was very sad. I mean, I was very disappointed.

AIZENMAN: The loan offer had not induced anyone who wasn't already planning to go to the city to make the trip. Evidence Action is doing one final round of loans to see if they can figure out what went wrong. But they've also announced that if they can't solve the problem, they will not seek new funding.

CATHERINE HOLLANDER: This is quite unusual.

AIZENMAN: Catherine Hollander is with GiveWell, an organization that researches charities to come up with an annual recommended short list for donors. In the fall of 2017, Evidence Action's program made the list. For 2018, the charity said, don't consider us. Hollander says this was a smart move.

HOLLANDER: It makes us trust them more. You know, the response that we've gotten from folks in our network who use our research has been positive.

AIZENMAN: Evidence Action's Levy says she hopes their example will inspire other charities to own up to failure.

LEVY: It's sad when something that you thought might actually solve a problem turns out not to, but it's much sadder to waste resources.

AIZENMAN: Nurith Aizenman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.