The rural poor in countries like India often benefit more from cheap, simple projects than they do from big, internationally-aided ones, a study by a group of economists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has found.
Women invest more in infrastructure, the study found
The economists, members of the school's Poverty Action Lab, have been evaluating anti-poverty programmes in India, Kenya, South Africa, Peru and the Philippines.
In India, the Lab has nine completed and continuing projects on subjects ranging from computer-assisted learning to women as policy makers, and school health to affirmative action in colleges.
One of the projects is an evaluation of village councils run by women in the states of West Bengal and Rajasthan.
A 1993 law reserved one-third of India's village council leader posts for women.
These councils control the allocation of funds for local infrastructure projects - such as the construction of roads and drinking water and irrigation systems, and the repair of schools and other public buildings.
The MIT study found that women leaders invested more in infrastructure that related to their concerns - water and roads in Bengal, and water in Rajasthan.
It also found that women were more politically active in village councils with a woman leader.
Helping children learn need not cost much
The findings, says Professor Abhijit Banerjee, an MIT economics professor and co-founder of the Poverty Action Lab, cast doubt on the general perception in India that men - often the husbands of the elected leaders - rule these women-led village councils by proxy.
"Women leaders spend differently from their male counterparts voicing their priorities," says Professor Banerjee.
The Lab evaluated another project run by an Indian non-governmental organisation in poor urban neighbourhoods.
In this innovative programme, the NGO hired young local women - called balshaki (or child's friend) - to provide remedial education to high school pupils who lacked primary school level competencies.
These students are taken out of regular classes for two hours of the school day and taught basic literacy and numeracy skills. The programme costs $5 a child every year, and is being implemented in 20 cities around India.
The MIT study showed that helping the students improves their grades and "effectively decreases inequality in classroom test scores".
Health and learning
The other interesting finding pertains to an evaluation of a NGO-run pre-school nutrition and health project in the slums of the capital, Delhi.
The programme provides for giving children medical treatment for intestinal worms and iron supplements to improve health. It costs on average less than $2 per child every year.
Health and learning were found to be linked
The MIT study found that the children gained weight and that average pre-school participation jumped sharply. Absenteeism reduced by a fifth.
The study raises questions about whether high-profile, foreign-funded poverty alleviation projects really deliver the desired results.
Developed nations and international donors, including the World Bank, spend more than $55bn every year in programmes designed to improve the condition of the world's 2.7bn poor people.
"There are cheap, simple and effective approaches that can have important benefits for the poor which are not being done," says Abhijit Banerjee.
One good example, he says, is that a fourth of the world's population have intestinal worms. Providing cheap deworming medication has no side effects, costs just pennies per child and increases health and school attendance substantially.
"Interventions that people assume are effective do not always work as well as expected or have the expected consequences," says Professor Banerjee.
One example he quotes is a Lab study finding that providing text books to children in poor Kenyan schools only raised the test scores of those already doing well at school.
"It is possible that the majority of children could not use the standard textbooks effectively as they were in English, the third language of most children in rural Kenyan schools," says Professor Banerjee.
The Lab's economists suggest that donors and those receiving aid should evaluate their programmes rigorously and "reorganise" them accordingly.
"We believe one important benefit of careful evidence on development programmes is that it can help address the cynicism about aid. People are more likely to give funding to programmes that have been demonstrated to have important benefits," says Professor Banerjee.