RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Here's something we are learning about how to help the world's poorest people. Instead of trying to create jobs where those people live, a growing body of research suggests that helping them leave can be a lot more effective. NPR's Nurith Aizenman has the story beginning with a farmhand in Bangladesh.
NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Mariful Islam has lived in a rural village his whole life.
MARIFUL ISLAM: (Through interpreter) I plant, and I harvest rice in the rice paddies.
AIZENMAN: But there's this two-to-three-month period when the rice is just growing, which means there's no work for Islam to do, which means he and his wife and his 1-and-a-half-year-old son have to get by on his meager savings.
ISLAM: (Through interpreter) We have a lot of problems getting enough food.
AIZENMAN: Instead of three meals a day, they cut back to two, skipping lunch. And it's mostly just rice. This seasonal famine period is so widespread across Bangladesh, it's got a name. Mushfiq Mobarak is an economist at Yale University.
MUSHFIQ MOBARAK: So it's called monga.
AIZENMAN: Monga. As a kid, Mobarak heard that word a lot because he grew up in Bangladesh where, he says, every year, the newspapers would be filled with reports about the latest multimillion-dollar aid program to get people through the monga season.
MOBARAK: So for example, the government had been running food-for-work programs in rural areas, trying to create employment.
AIZENMAN: But Mobarak was struck by a major flaw in this approach. There's just a limit to how many jobs you can create in a place like rural Bangladesh. But there's no shortage of jobs in Bangladesh's cities. That gave Mobarak an idea.
MOBARAK: Why don't we try to move people to where the jobs are?
AIZENMAN: Migration is an age-old response to poverty. But people also often hesitate because it can be risky. So Mobarak set up what's been a years-long series of experiments to see if a little aid could ease the way. During the monga season, he gives farm workers a one-time, very low-interest loan they can use to get themselves to the city - less than $20.
MOBARAK: That pays for the round-trip bus fare to the city, plus a few days of food.
AIZENMAN: The result - the workers who have gotten the help have been about 60 percent more likely to try their luck in a city. Most of them have succeeded in getting a job, mainly pulling rickshaws. And with the extra money, their families have consumed an average of at least 36 percent more food. That's a much better track record than the traditional food-for-work or food-for-distribution programs.
MOBARAK: About five times as cost effective.
AIZENMAN: So impressive, it prompted several funders to partner with Mobarak to scale up his idea into a charity - it's called No Lean Season - that today is helping about 160,000 people a year. Mobarak's work has also contributed to what's been something of a mind shift among poverty researchers. Michael Clemens is with the Center for Global Development, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
MICHAEL CLEMENS: Very recently, economists have been looking at a different kind of policy that helps people move to where opportunity is.
AIZENMAN: Clemens and others have been rigorously studying a host of programs and just situations that have allowed poor people to migrate - sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently, sometimes within their countries, sometimes overseas. Invariably, the conclusion is that...
CLEMENS: If you want to help somebody who is in poverty, by far, the most effective thing you can do to assist them is to assist them in moving.
AIZENMAN: And yet, governments and aid groups aren't exactly rushing to embrace this strategy because, well, it's fraught. Take the case of Mariful Islam, the farmhand in Bangladesh. Last month, he used a loan from No Lean Season to make his first trip ever to the city, and it was tough.
ISLAM: (Through interpreter) I stayed in a room with 15 other men. The place was filthy and smelly.
AIZENMAN: Mushfiq Mobarak says that's a scenario a lot of officials raise when he tries to sell them on bringing migrants to their cities.
MOBARAK: The reaction I often get is that, oh, actually, we've been trying to do the opposite. We don't like all these migrants coming in and dirtying up our city. And these people might actually be better off in the rural area.
AIZENMAN: To which he replies - not if they're going to starve there. Mariful Islam would agree. As unpleasant as his time in the city was, he says, next year, I'm definitely going back.
Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIGNAL HILL'S "A SECRET SOCIETY")
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