Monday, April 06, 2009

Why donate to village libraries?

A Rotary friend from Canada wanted to work with FAVL, and asked how to respond to questions about the importance or urgency of other kinds of interventions, such as clean water or sanitation. His question raises all kinds of interesting issues, but rather than digress I'll go straight to the point: What is the most compelling case for supporting village libraries when there are so many other ways to have an impact on the lives of the least fortunate.

I think there are a number of components to the answer. I'll try to flesh this out over the coming weeks... here's some preliminary thoughts.

1) The social benefits vs. project cost approach
It is very clear that projects that provide deworming pills generate a huge benefit to kids (improvement in health and better school attendance) relative to cost (the pills are very cheap). It is also clear that anti-malarial bednets (that keep mosquitoes out and kill mosquitoes that land on them, by exposure to a safe insecticide) are very beneficial. So I don't have a good reason why we shouldn't spend all funds on these items and the handful of others that are hands-down winners in the category of most cost-effective way to improve general well-being for large numbers of people. For rationales for spending resources (time and money) on libraries, we have to go to the next three issues, with the following caveat. Once we get past the obvious hugely beneficial interventions, we find many projects that may have very sizable effects on well-being, but we don't know enough about long-term effects to have much confidence that we should concentrate all our eggs in those baskets. So it is a good thing to let "many projects bloom" so that we (the international donor community and the local policymaker in the poor country) learn about different projects and their effects.

2) The "who should do the intervention" issue
Deworming and bednets, and many other health interventions, have dramatic economies of scale. A Ministry of Health can implement a deworming program or a bednet program way more cost-effectively than a small $15,000 project. So these are not really appropriate projects for a small focused donor group, unless they want to give the funding to a larger organization (see point 3 below).

3) Projects that respond to donor interest and involvement will be able to maintain longer term impacts perspective

4) The "teach to fish" approach
Libraries belong in this category, like education gneerally. These kinds of projects do not produce immediate improvements in well-being. Education on the contrary almost by definition-- taking kids out of productive family activities and putting them in school -- has a negative impact on family well-being with a possible positive impact on child well-being. (see the remarkable opening sequence (in Italian with Spanish subtitles)of Padre Padrone below!)

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