Can an academic institute fight poverty?

Our more diligent readers may have noticed that a large number of MethodLogical contributors are Stanford alums (football team currently ranked #3 in the country). This may be because Stanford students are uniquely qualified to shape development policy or simply further proof of the imprecision of snowball sampling– you be the judge. Nevertheless, imagine our pride at learning that Stanford’s Graduate School of Business was recently the recipient of a $150 million donation to develop the Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies (SEED).

In addition to supporting research, the focus of the institute will be on funding students to work and study abroad and to bring students from industrializing nations to Stanford to help develop their ideas. The institute will also fund classes focusing on poverty alleviation.

On campus, we call it The Farm.

Universities have played a large role in expanding global health and development programs, but, as research-based institutions, are they the best candidates for this task? As I’ve written in the past, it is not enough to judge a program’s effect in isolation; instead, we must consider the cost-effectiveness of the program and consider what could have been achieved if the same resources had been invested in a different undertaking. While certainly more meaningful than a new gym or auditorium, is this the best use of $150 million? Would an NGO or a non-profit engaging in direct action rather than research have been a more impactful recipient?

SEED may bring innovations to this farm.

It’s hard to say. If SEED facilitates the invention of a disruptive technology that revolutionizes development–a veritable global health Google–then sure, this was money well spent. More realistically, we will witness scads of good but not great innovations, many of which may have arisen without this donation, presenting a murkier picture. As someone who studied HIV and public health in South Africa through Stanford, I understand both the power and the limitations of such experiences.

The purpose of this post is not to be ungrateful. This is a huge donation for a good cause and presents a profound opportunity for Stanford. It’s now up to the university to realize its potential.


About schwartz1983

Medical student. Aspiring public health practitioner.
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