by Elaine Wallace

Psychologists have long been aware of the importance of hope in helping us achieve our personal goals, but hope isn’t just a feel-good emotion that prompts us to work towards a promotion or try to lose a few pounds. According to economists, hope also plays a vital role in reducing world poverty.

One such economist is Dr. Esther Duflo, a professor at MIT and one of the world’s leading authorities on international development. Dr. Duflo argues that hopelessness is a key reason why poor people remain poor, and programs that provide hope for the future can make a big difference when it comes to escaping the poverty trap.

Dr. Duflo developed her theory after discovering that some anti-poverty programs have far greater economic benefits than expected. As one example, Dr. Duflo points to programs that give families a small productive asset, such as a cow or goat. Economists expect that a cow or goat will provide a family with a certain amount of benefit in the form of increased income and food consumption. But studies show that the benefits are often much greater and last far longer than expected. In fact, the benefits are so great that they can’t be attributed just to the value of the initial asset; even if they had made maximum use of their asset, families could not have earned enough from a cow or goat to account for their subsequent income gains.

Dr. Duflo and her colleagues studied anti-poverty programs to determine the reasons for the unexplained gains. What they found has far-reaching implications for the role of hope in overcoming poverty.

According to their research, the sense of hopelessness that comes from extreme poverty has a profound effect on how poor people perceive their situations and on the decisions they make. When people feel hopeless, they become fatalistic and forgo even small changes that could improve their situation, believing that any step they could take would be too small to make a difference. They avoid thinking about the future and become risk-averse, forgoing even small investments with potentially large benefits – such as the bus fare to a nearby town that offers more employment opportunities – because they’re afraid of losing what little they have.

Anti-poverty programs counteract these tendencies by dramatically improving mental health. By reducing depression and relieving some of the stresses of poverty – such as hunger, sickness, and worries about their family’s health and future – anti-poverty programs give people the mental bandwidth to do more than just survive. Dr. Duflo argues that these programs, by providing hope, allow poor people to realize their potential. They work more hours, explore new lines of work, think of ways to improve their situation, make better decisions, and invest time and resources in their futures.

I learned about Dr. Duflo’s work from a lecture she gave at Stanford University a few years ago, available on YouTube. As I listened, I was struck by how much of what she says applies to Wells Bring Hope. Drilling wells is just the beginning; ready access to clean water does so much more to help relieve the stresses of poverty, from improving health, reducing worry about child mortality, helping communities survive drought, and freeing up time for girls to go to school and women to work on new income opportunities supported by microfinancing. Wells certainly do bring hope, and hope really does matter.

Source: “Esther Duflo: Hope, Aspirations and the Design of the Fight Against Poverty,” available on YouTube at