The Hyper-Efficient, Highly Scientific Scheme to Help the World’s Poor

December 20, 2013 · 0 comments

The Hyper-Efficient, Highly Scientific Scheme to Help the World’s Poor | Complete article: by J. Benko,, Dec 11, 2013 |

Excerpts - The first thing you need to know about randomized controlled trials, especially those pertaining to economics and human behavior, is that they’re hard—very hard.

A 2004 experiment to promote water treatment wound up suggesting a solution that the researchers hadn’t imagined. In this case, the larger goal was to combat diarrheal diseases, which kill millions of people every year, especially children under 5. Chlorine treatments can render water safe; but despite years of education efforts in Kenya, few people purchased and used the chlorine solution, even though it was widely available.

To test remedies, the researchers identified 88 springs that supplied nearly 2,000 households in western Kenya. Surveys of local women, who usually collect the water for the family and monitor children’s health, found that 70 to 90 percent knew about the chlorine product but only 5 percent used it, and IPA’s in-home tests detected chlorine in the water of just 2 percent of households. These women knew how to make their water safe, but they weren’t doing it.

After that, the researchers spent four years testing different interventions. Giving away the chlorine solution helped in the near term, but when the free supply ran out, usage fell off. Half-off coupons for chlorine were a bust; out of 2,724 coupons handed out, just 10 percent were ever redeemed. The study also tested whether local “promoters,” sent door to door with one free voucher per family, might succeed in evangelizing the use of chlorine among their neighbors. Promoters did make a difference in the short term; in this cohort, 40 percent of household water samples showed evidence of chlorine. But that number fell significantly when the vouchers ran out.

Finally, the researchers tried a new strategy, one that they had come to late in their design. Collaborating with engineers at MIT and Tufts and local artisans in Kenya, they developed chlorine dispensers that could be installed at the spring. Each tank was large enough for a whole community; two turns of a knob would release the right amount of chlorine to treat the standard 20-liter jerrican that women typically carry water in. In communities with these dispensers, the percentage of households with detectable chlorine in their water jumped to 60 percent, versus 58 percent in a group where seven free bottles were actually delivered to their homes. And the dispensers cost less than a third as much.



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