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In 2002 in the run-up to the USA’s second invasion of Iraq, when he was challenged about the allegations made by the Bush administration about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) arsenal, Donald Rumsfeld made a memorable logical statement: The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. … Simply because you do not have evidence that something exists does not mean that you have evidence that it doesn’t exist.”

A parody of Rumsfeld from the (massively under-appreciated) comic series “The Boondocks”. Warning: coarse language.

In terms of twisted logic, Rumsfeld was right: the fact that intelligence couldn’t find conclusive proof for WMDs in Iraq didn’t necessarily mean they weren’t there; their available methods simply weren’t good enough to find them. But empirically, of course, he was wrong: as we now know, the reason why no proof was found for the WMDs was, they simply weren’t there.

Fast-forward to 2011, to a debate about the evidence for positive impacts of microfinance. Six British researchers recently published an exhaustive study (actually a Systematic Review, S.R.); as I explained on this blog, they pulled together all existing 2,643 publications about microfinance’s impact and looked in depth at the best 58.

Their conclusions – which are too complex and fine-grained to really present in a nutshell – effectively: (1) raised doubts about the research designs used so far, (2) re-iterated that the available evidence could “neither support nor deny the notion that microfinance is pro-poor and pro-women”, and (3) suggested that there has been an “inappropriate optimism towards microfinance”. And finally, they suggested that pursuing microfinance without proof that it works bears the risk of not running other programmes which could work better – opportunity cost. Read the rest of this entry »

What is the evidence of the impact
of microfinance on the well-being of
poor people?

Maren Duvendack, Richard Palmer-Jones, James G Copestake, Lee Hooper, Yoon Loke, Nitya Rao

August 2011

London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London.

A new systematic review of the evidence on microfinance, published last week, is dynamite for the world’s most popular development policy. Madeleine Bunting of the Guardian has already referred to it as “microfinance’s sober reckoning”, likening the findings to a “hangover after a big party”. Bangladeshi news calls it a “damning report”.

Being co-published by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), previously a strong microfinance supporter, this “study of studies” comes from deep within the policy community – a first for a truly critical study of microfinance. The authors (economists and medical researchers mainly based at the University of East Anglia) looked at thousands of existing studies on microfinance. Their conclusions are anything but minced words:

Our report shows that almost all impact evaluations of microfinance suffer from weak methodologies and
inadequate data, thus adversely affecting the reliability of impact estimates. Nevertheless authors often draw strong policy conclusions generally supportive of microfinance. This may have lead to misconceptions about the actual effects of programmes, thereby diverting attention from the search for perhaps more pro-poor interventions and more robust evaluations. (from the Policy Brief)

So, after 30-odd years and $ hundreds of billions of lending, there still is no proof that microfinance actually works. Read the rest of this entry »

Today, Google announced its acquisition of Motorola Mobility for not less than $12.5 billion in cash. And I completely agree with Forbes’ contributor Eric Jackson, who states that


Saad Irfan, CC BY-NC-ND

[i]f you think this is about Google getting into the handset business, think again. If Google were to get into the handset business, they would turn their back on partners like HTC, Samsung and others.
Today’s deal is all about acquiring Motorola’s backlog of mobile-related patents. When Google lost out on the batch of Nortel patents, they worried that Android was significantly at risk.

A risk stemming from the fact that, in spite of developing Android under an open source license, powerful patent holders such as Microsoft were able to squeeze out licensing fees from corporate Android users. The bizarre result being that Google, the main developer of Android, gives away its contributions to the operating system for free while its not-contributing competitor Microsoft charged hardware producer HTC $5 for any shipped Android (!) smartphone (see business insider). Read the rest of this entry »

Google Books Ngram Viewer is a fantastic tool showing how certain phrases have occurred in a corpus of books over a selected period of time. Recently, fellow bloggers over at orgtheory have played around with this tool (see, for example, “market – science- religion“).

Working on the issue of the digital public domain during my stay at the WZB, I was curious to compare the mentions of “public domain” and “intellectual property”, which are depicted in the graph below:

The resulting graph is pretty interesting. First, I did not know that the term “intellectual property” was virtually non-existant at all prior to 1980. This is remarkable since the negotiations that in the end led to the WTO’s agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) had started in the early 1980s. Again, we can observe a shifting baseline effect (see “Shifting Baseline in Assessing Copyright Regulation?“): today the concept of “intellectual property” has become completely taken for granted, while 30 years ago even the phrase hadn’t been used. Read the rest of this entry »

As mentioned in my last post, this summer I am visiting the WZB to work on a paper about the digital public domain. Rifling through a huge pile of papers on the issue, I recently stumbled across Robert P. Merges’ 2004 essay “A New Dynamism in the Public Domain” (PDF) – and I really regret not having read this piece much earlier. He summarizes the main point of his paper as follows:

The simple point of this Essay is that these investments are invigorating the public domain with a new dynamism stemming from private action. These investments demonstrate that private action, and not just government policy, can augment the public domain. (p. 184)

Such private investments into the public domain, Merges argues, are inspired by the very expansions of intellectual property rights they seek to counteract: Read the rest of this entry »

The Book

Governance across borders: transnational fields and transversal themes. Leonhard Dobusch, Philip Mader and Sigrid Quack (eds.), 2013, epubli publishers.
August 2011

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