In the back of our heads, we mostly see poverty as a motivational problem. If we can motivate the poor to understand the long term benefits of things like education, family planning and healthcare, we can help them get out of that spiral of poverty. A lot of new research however, shows that the real problem is not a lack of motivation.

In our previous blog entry, we mentioned, MIT Professor Esther Duflo, Co-Founder and Director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). Her research focusses on looking at the results of small scale development aid projects around the world, to better understand what works and what doesn’t. By using quantitative scientific research, she hopes to come up with new and more efficient methods to tackle poverty.

She talked about her research during a foreign aid public debate a few years back, and showed a few very interesting trends and results that provide a whole new way of looking at the problems and mindset of the poor around the world.

The price of rice

We associate poverty with hunger for example. But that’s not something that Duflo’s research shows: “In our minds, the poor are starving. But it’s not a hunger problem, it is a nutrition problem. If you lower the price of rice by 10%, the consumption will actually go down by 2.3%. People will eat less, and spend more money on better tasting food or things like televisions or cell phones. They don’t see the value of proper nutrition, which is why we have to think of ways to pack better tasting food with more nutrients.”

Vaccination programs

Duflo also mentions failed vaccination programs in the poorest parts of India. Doctors show up in the local villages, handing out free vaccinations. You would think all the obstacles are gone; people don’t have to spend money or walk for miles and miles to the nearest vaccination center.

But almost nobody shows up. Duflo’s team came up with a brilliant idea: “People rarely show up for free vaccines, but spend a lot of money on healthcare when they do get sick. This is mainly because people don’t really understand the long-term benefits of preventive medicine, because there are no direct visible results. It often leads to procrastination.”

But people do show up when there are extra benefits. “We give them a kilogram of lentils and metal kitchen plates when they get their vaccination.” You would think this would be more expensive, adding to the cost of the medication, but, according to Duflo´s research, it is quite the opposite. “A large portion of the cost of vaccines is paying the people who give the vaccinations. More people showing up instead of a few trickling in over a period of weeks, means less working hours for the medical staff.”


What both examples have in common? Not a lack of motivation, but a lack of understanding long term benefits and a focus on short term thinking. Education helps people learn to see and understand things in the long run. Whether it’s about nutrition or getting vaccinated, educating people helps tackle a lot of problems associated with poverty.