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What happens if you give some families global aid and some families nothing?
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His team chose an anti-poverty program in Bangladesh with good results, called BRAC, that had helped 400,000 families that were living off $1.25 a day, and tested the program with thousands of families in six countries. - photo by Lane Anderson
The idea of global aid giving a family a cow, or chickens, or micro-credit loans to start a small business sounds like a good idea. But Dean Karlan wanted to know if it really works.

As a grad student, he pored through studies but none of them answered his question because they didnt use a control group to test their findings.

Take, for instance, a charity that gives a family a cow, Karlan, now a professor at Yale, told NPR. The charity might check on the family a year later and say, Wow! The family is doing so much better with this cow. Cows must be the reason.

But maybe it wasn't the cow that improved the family's life. Maybe it had a bumper crop that year or property values went up in the neighborhood.

So Karlan set up a study that used the scientific method. With help from nonprofits and aid groups, he located thousands of families living in extreme poverty. Half of them got aid, the other half got nothing.

It was a simple plan that sounded harsh to some but Karlan reasoned that the test was for the greater good.

His team chose an anti-poverty program in Bangladesh with good results, called BRAC, that had helped 400,000 families that were living off $1.25 a day, and tested the program with thousands of families in six countries.

The families that received aid got a suite of services, including livestock for making money, like goats or guinea pigs, depending on the location; training on raising the livestock; food or cash to discourage eating the livestock; a savings account; and mental and physical health services.

The results of the massive experiment were published in Science this week. The strategy worked in five of the six countries: Families that got aid made a little more money, had more to eat, and reported a general bump in happiness.

"We see mental health go up. Happiness go up. We even saw things like female power increase," Karlan told NPR.

But the increase in income was modest the families were still very poor. Income and food consumption went up by just 5 percent compared to the control group. But interestingly, families continued to make a little more money even a year after the aid stopped, indicating that aid can sustainably help people inch out of poverty.

"Moving poverty is hard," said Sarah Baird, an economist at George Washington University. "The fact that they [Karlan and colleagues] were able to move it, and it was sustainable after a year, I think is important."

She said that the findings are hopeful because they show that aid from charities and governments can make a difference.