It seems like a no-brainer. Before you spend big bucks on a massive effort to improve life for the world's poorest — say, distributing millions of free bed nets against malarial mosquitoes, or offering thousands of women microloans as small as $200 to start small businesses — you should run a smaller scale test to make sure the idea actually works. After all, just because a project sounds good in theory doesn't mean it's going to pan out in practice.
For instance, what if giving out the bed nets for free makes people less likely to value them? Maybe you should charge a fee on the theory that while less people would get the nets, those who do will be the ones who see a need for them and will therefore take the trouble to actually use them.
And what if some totally different method wouldn't achieve better results for less money? For instance, maybe the key to lifting women's incomes isn't helping them start a small business but helping them land a salaried job?
Yet for decades, questions like this have been left unanswered. Instead health and development aid for the world's poorest has largely been designed based on what seems reasonable, rather than what can be proved with hard evidence.
A New Movement
Since the early 2000s, however, a growing movement of social science researchers have been pushing policy-makers to do "impact evaluations" of their programs. That's a phrase used in the world of aid that means checking whether your program is achieving its ultimate objective — say raising incomes or reducing disease.
In particular, these scientists have been arguing for the use of what they call the gold-standard of proof: the "randomized controlled trial." In an RCT you randomly divide the people you're studying into at least two groups. One gets the intervention you want to test. The second, an otherwise identical "control group" of subjects, doesn't get the intervention. Then you compare the results for each group to see what difference, if any, the intervention made.
Over the last decade there's been an explosion in the number of RCTs being done to measure health and anti-poverty efforts, and they've helped settle some major debates about what works and what doesn't. (As it turns out, offering bed nets for free as opposed to at a price, appears to be extremely effective. On the other hand, while microloans may have all sorts of uses, the evidence suggests that lifting people's incomes over the long term is not one of them.)
The Worries Of 'Randomistas'
Despite these successes, the researchers who advocate this approach — they're sometimes called "randomistas" — also worry that RCT's are still not being deployed frequently enough, and that even when they are done, policy makers often fail to apply the lessons.
This sense of mixed progress was evident at a recent conference organized by the Washington, D.C.-think tank Center for Global Development, where some of the most prominent randomistas gathered to take stock.
Just ten years ago one of the most active centers of RCT work was running about 70 impact evaluations worldwide. Today it's got about 800 underway. That's according to Abhijit Banarjee a professor of economics at MIT who helped found the center — the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, or J-PAL , a network of affiliated researchers at nearly 50 universities who set up RCTs in the fields of global health and poverty that was started in 2003.
And when you include the work of groups beyond J-PAL, the number of impact evaluations of global health and poverty programs that are completed and published each year has risen steadily in the last decade from about 50 per year to 500 per year, said Emmanuel Jimenez. He's director of the International Impact Evaluation Initiative, or 3ie, an NGO that maintains a searchable database of findings in addition to providing $83 million to fund studies since 2008.
Rachel Glennerster, Executive Director of J-PAL, credits the rise of RCT's not just to funding organizations like 3ie but other research nonprofits that conduct them. Today, she said, major anti-poverty players ranging from the World Bank and USAID — the main U.S. government agency responsible for development programs — all have departments that use impact evaluations in one way or another.
"What encourages me is that we've built a whole kind of ecosystem of groups who are trying to move this forward," said Glennerster.
But like other randomistas, she also worried that that the number of RCTs is still paltry compared to the number of development programs that governments, international organizations and NGOs are carrying out.
Even at the World Bank and USAID, only a small portion of projects are subject to impact evaluations, agreed Amanda Glassman, chief operating officer and senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. And it gets worse, Glassman said. Every year, her group does an exhaustive review to identify large-scale health programs that made a big impact. Of about 250 that they looked through this year, "only 50 used rigorous method to establish the attributable impact. And none of the very largest programs in global health had done any impact evaluation at all," including two major international non-profit organizations: Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis as well as GAVI, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization.
This doesn't mean the health products that these health programs use — medicines or vaccines, for instance — haven't been proven effective through say, medical trials, explained Glassman. But, she says, that's not enough when it comes to programs for which "the challenge isn't the biological effect of a pill but how to get those pills to those who need them."
Is Attention Being Paid?
Then there's the question of how much attention policy-makers are paying to the results of the RCTs that are being done. Banarjee noted that RCTs have at least already "fundamentally changed our understanding" of some key issues in aid – the limits of microloans as a tool for ending poverty, the advisability of offering not just bed nets but all sorts of other preventive health products like de worming pills and chlorine treatments for water for free or heavily subsidized prices.
But in many cases, the information generated by RCTs isn't used to improve aid. Jimenez, of 3ie, described an internal review done by the World Bank — where he used to work — which found that only about half of impact evaluations done on Bank projects were even cited in the final reports on those projects.
So why do some RCT's make an impact while others vanish without a trace? One important lesson: collaboration with local governments is critical. Researchers need to work more directly with the policy-makers who implement aid programs, said Jimenez.
Several speakers at the conference described successful experiences doing this: A team from J-PAL has worked with Indonesia's government to test and then roll out measures to curb corruption in a rice distribution program that serves 66 million people. And researchers from the non-profit institute RTI have been helping the government of Kenya design new teaching techniques to improve reading and math skills in elementary schools.
To make these partnerships with policymakers work , said Jimenez, researchers might sometimes need to put their personal career interests on the back-burner. For instance, researchers often prefer not to publicize their results until they're ready for publication in a prominent journal. But that can take months. Instead said Jimenez, researchers need to be "getting results out when the decision-makers need it."
J-PAL's Banarjee said that figuring out how to collaborate with governments is such a priority that J-PAL recently launched a whole branch dedicated to doing just that — it's called the Government Partnerships Initiative. Otherwise, he said, "a lot of good ideas don't get implemented. And I think that's really a tragedy."