Experimental approaches to development

Declan Butler’s Nature News article Field trials aim to tackle poverty describes how development experiments are being used to test approaches to development.  Others have taken a similar approach, Ricardo Godoy and his collaborators took an experimental approach to development anthropology in the Bolivian amazon.  But it is encouraging to see adaptive management type approach being applied to development problems.

The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) is pioneering the concept of randomized trials, more commonly associated with drug safety tests, to assess what works and what doesn’t in development and poverty interventions. The strategy has inspired the World Bank, which in December will choose winning proposals in a €10.4-million (US$14.9-million), 3-year programme that will use randomized trials to study the fight against poverty.

Based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, J-PAL was founded in 2003 and this year has more than 60 projects on the go in 21 countries. Esther Duflo, one of the lab’s founders, says she set it up to help rigorously test the many programmes that are meant to aid the poor. “Whereas one would not dream of putting a new drug on the market without a randomized trial,” she says, “such evaluations were, and to a certain extent still are, very rare for social programmes.”

Although young, J-PAL has already notched up some successes. One of its first studies, involving more than 30,000 youngsters in rural Kenya, found that deworming children reduced the number of days taken off school by 25% (E. Miguel and M. Kremer Econometrica 72, 159-217 ; 2004). Another study, in India, showed that hiring young local women to help at schools with underperforming students significantly increased test scores, and was six times cheaper than the computer-assisted learning already being tested (A. Banerjee et al . Q. J. Econ. 122, 1235-1264 ; 2007). “J-PAL’s results in education are solid and important,” says Nilima Gulrajani, an expert in aid management at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

… But Gulrajani urges against excessive enthusiasm for randomized trials in poverty research. She worries that policy-makers may jump on the findings as scientific too soon, and apply them too broadly — neglecting painstaking, but seemingly softer, classical social-science studies. At the same time, she praises J-PAL’s concept. “It’s the first attempt to approach poverty research in a scientific, controlled, experimental way,” she says. “You are going to see this being increasingly adopted. It is a fantastic idea.”

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