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February 27, 2012

Lifetime Achievement

by marcobuchbinder

Please read this interview, particularly if you are affiliated or play an influential role with the funding decision of a non-profit, as it could lead to your non-profit making an even greater impact on its target base.

Imagine positively impacting millions of lives…impacting a fraction of that number would represent quite a lifetime achievement for many of us – well, the team at J-PAL (MIT’s Poverty Lab) have already done that and are aiming for more (a recent deworming campaign in India reached 17 million children). Iqbal Dhaliwal, the Global Head of Policy at J-PAL, is leading many of these efforts to ensure that global policies and programs to reduce poverty are made more effective. 

I spoke with Iqbal about the challenge of measuring success and how non-profits can make an even greater impact on their target base.   

Iqbal, why did you choose a career in policy development and implementation?

I grew up in Delhi and was always bothered why there were so many people that were so poor. Were they just lazy (a fairly widespread belief among many in the middle class) or were there factors beyond their control? Those questions drove me to study economics at college and then to a career in the Indian civil services to implement many of the state-run development programs that aim at reducing poverty.

My first job took me deep into rural India where I spent three years and saw how the majority in India lived…working in the unorganized sector, toiling so hard and yet so poor, with little hope for progress. After another position in the state capital, this time formulating government’s welfare policy, I came to the U.S. to pursue a policy degree that would complement my training in economics.

Please describe your role at MIT.

J-PAL is a center in the economics department at MIT and includes 65 professors from major universities who evaluate development programs around the world to determine their true final impact. This is not easy to do because while program implementers are great at measuring processes (e.g. how many free textbooks were distributed), they are not so good at measuring the outcomes that are really of interest (e.g. how much did the children’s learning increase because of the books alone).

I lead J-PAL’s Policy Group that works with governments, international development organizations, foundations and NGOs to disseminate the policy implications of this ground breaking research so that programs that are objectively measured to be effective can be scaled up, while those that are not having the desired impact can be improved. We also create cost-effectiveness analyses that compare the policy outcomes and costs of various development programs that have been evaluated in the field in order to identify the most effective solutions for a given problem.  What are the biggest challenges that you regularly face?

Ignorance, Inertia and Ideology are three of our biggest challenges…

By Ignorance I mean that policy makers are often unaware of the results of the latest research or lessons from other contexts that can help guide their own program choices or policy design. This leads to suboptimal decisions. For example, one of the most cost-effective ways to increase school attendance is to deworm children so that they don’t miss classes, fall behind and or even drop out of schools. Yet, most educators only see deworming as a “health” intervention and choose instead to spend much more on traditional programs like improving school buildings or supplies, which while important, may not have the desired impact if the children are sick at home.

By Inertia I mean that policy makers often hesitate to discontinue programs that have been running for many years or try new things because they are so “used to” doing things a certain way. For instance in the quest for the perfect solution to reduce water borne diseases (piped supply of chlorinated water to every house), governments may continue to pump millions of dollars to build that costly infrastructure in a slow, phased manner rather than quickly install inexpensive and easy to operate chlorine dispensers near traditional sources of rural water supply, like wells, at a fraction of the cost and time needed for universal piped water. 


By Ideology I mean that too often decision makers make choices that are based on their beliefs or instincts, as opposed to applying a data driven approach. For instance, it has been shown that providing small, non-monetary incentives, like a kilogram of lentils, can increase full-immunization rates almost six-times in rural India.  Such incentives help overcome behavioral issues, like ‘procrastinating in making an unpleasant and long trek to the nearest field clinic.’ Yet policy makers hesitate to try out this program in the belief that it is wrong to give parents incentives to do what is anyway the “right thing” for their children.

What has been your greatest achievement?  

Trying to change policies or introduce new programs.

Bihar, one of the poorest states in India with a population of more than 100M, has high worm prevalence. I made many trips to meet the health officials in the state and organized a joint conference with the government, where our affiliated professors spoke about their research and our implementing partners talked about their experience with different development programs, including deworming. This helped convince the Chief Secretary of the State to adopt this program, which our sister organization, Deworm the World, then worked tirelessly to help implement.

The result: 17 million children were de-wormed in 2011, with benefits for both school attendance and their overall health.  So while our work is challenging…you talk to hundreds of policy makers and many of them don’t listen to your research, all it takes is one interested policy maker in the right position to make a big difference (read more about the case here).

What advice can you give to those readers that are affiliated or play an influential role with the funding decision of a non-profit? 

Ask the right questions…what evidence does your organization use to select a given program? Was the decision to choose a particular program based on objective evidence and by comparing the cost effectiveness of alternative strategies or was it guided more by belief and instincts? How does the organization you are funding define its success and how does it measure its outcome? 

Don’t think just process but think of the final impact that you are interested in.  So in other words, don’t just focus on making sure that millions of text books were delivered successfully to school libraries in developing countries, but ask for the empirical evidence to validate the theory that handing out free books actually improves learning achievement.

If your organization has a promising new program or an innovation to an existing program that you would like to measure, but don’t know enough about how to objectively do so, please go to our website at

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