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In both rich and poor countries, government policy is often based on no evidence at all and many programs don’t work. This has particularly harsh effects on the global poor – in some countries governments only spend $100 on each citizen a year so they can’t afford to waste a single dollar.

Enter MIT’s Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). Since 2003 they’ve conducted experiments to figure out what policies actually help recipients, and then try to get them implemented by governments and nonprofits.

Claire Walsh leads J-PAL’s Government Partnership Initiative, which works to evaluate policies and programs in collaboration with developing world governments, scale policies that have been shown to work, and generally promote a culture of evidence-based policymaking.

We discussed (her views only, not J-PAL’s):

  • How can they get evidence backed policies adopted? Do politicians in the developing world even care whether their programs actually work? Is the norm evidence-based policy, or policy-based evidence?
  • Is evidence-based policy an evidence-based strategy itself?
  • Which policies does she think would have a particularly large impact on human welfare relative to their cost?
  • How did she come to lead one of J-PAL’s departments at 29?
  • How do you evaluate the effectiveness of energy and environment programs (Walsh’s area of expertise), and what are the standout approaches in that area?
  • 80,000 Hours has warned people about the downsides of starting your career in a nonprofit. Walsh started her career in a nonprofit and has thrived, so are we making a mistake?
  • Other than J-PAL, what are the best places to work in development? What are the best subjects to study? Where can you go network to break into the sector?
  • Is living in poverty as bad as we think?

And plenty of other things besides.

We haven’t run an RCT to test whether this episode will actually help your career, but I suggest you listen anyway. Trust my intuition on this one.


I think a lot of people’s assumptions about what it’s like to work with governments are true, not unfounded. In general, evidence is not the top factor that policy-makers consider when making decisions. It might be eighth or ninth on the list. What I’ve come to learn over time is that there’s often good reason for that. They have to work on the issues that their constituents care about. It may not always be the policy that’s backed by evidence that’s a priority for their constituents at that time. It does tend to be slower working with bureaucracies. Governments have a lot of restrictions in how they can hire researchers or work with researchers or partner with outside organizations. It can take longer to develop partnerships, but I think we’ve overall been really surprised that there are particular ministries or champions within ministries or mayors who are really excited about using data and evidence that are eager to partner with NGOs or researchers in order to get things done more effectively.

…a couple of our affiliate professors are working on the question of whether evidence is a powerful tool in changing policy decisions, so randomly assigning certain public officials to get access to evidence about an intervention that works and others not, and seeing whether that changes what decisions they make. There are a couple of experiments ongoing, and I think those will be exciting to see the results of, to see whether evidence of actually something that can change policy-makers’ minds.

…in my experience, looking at my peers who are involved in similar international development policy work, I think we owe a lot to our Master’s degree programs. There are a lot of public policy schools that tend to launch people into rapidly rising careers in governments and international policy in research organizations. They’re called the APSIA schools.

There are a lot of exciting [environment and energy] interventions that have been evaluated once and found to be effective … One really exciting paper that came out recently was an evaluation of payments for environmental services program in Uganda that paid landowners to refrain from cutting down trees on their land. It was a really cost-effective program that cut the deforestation rate from between 7 and 10% to between 2 and 5%. That’s a model that’s actually been tried by a lot of governments and a lot of NGOs all around the world. This is, to my knowledge, the first randomized control trial of it, so before going out and recommending it broadly, I’d love to see more evidence on this topic from others.

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About the show

The 80,000 Hours Podcast features unusually in-depth conversations about the world's most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. We invite guests pursuing a wide range of career paths — from academics and activists to entrepreneurs and policymakers — to analyse the case for and against working on different issues and which approaches are best for solving them.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris. Get in touch with feedback or guest suggestions by emailing [email protected].

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