Karlan and Appel's "More Than Good Intentions"

Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel's new book More Than Good Intentions (previously mentioned here) is coming out tomorrow and Sol and I got a hold of review copies. To that end, a review:

Overall it's a great read. Karlan does behavioral development economics with a big emphasis on Poverty Action Lab-style randomized control trials, and the book is essentially a thematicized overview of the current state of that field. What's particularly worth noting is that behavioral development econ is very new: most of the papers and studies covered are from the last ten years (Googling around a bit turns up what I think is the earliest lit review from 2006), and as far as I can tell this is the first book on the subject at all.

That newness shows up in the general slant of the book. A lot of general-audience econ and science books tend towards pithy summaries of major results from the author's area of research (e.g., "libertarian paternalism works" or "clever identification can reveal crazy facts"). But the pithy summary of this book would probably be something like "psychology really affects economic outcomes in developing contexts, sometimes hugely, and here's some promising early evidence." There's less a grand thesis that's being hammered away at so much as a constellation of interesting data points all hinting at a new and interesting way to think about the fundamental problems of development.

Some of those seem very promising. The multiple sections on microfinance provide a lot of worthwhile food for thought, and Karlan & Appel's emphasis on the importance of providing microsavings as opposed to simply microcredit is particularly welcome. Other parts of the book on areas like agriculture, health, etc. seem to me almost as if they should be "behavioral" chapters in books on those subjects, which really is another way of saying that the field is young and there's a lot of research waiting to be done.

In short, the book was fun, engaging, and a quick read, and in combination with some background texts could probably could sub out for a nice undergrad class on behavioral development economics. I'd especially recommend it to high school and college students who are interested in development and trying to get oriented in the field / find out who the major players are / figure out which open problems are juiciest.

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