Nobel Prize, Randomized Controlled Trials, and Poverty

Nobel Prize, Randomized Controlled Trials, and Poverty

There are two great things about the 2019 Nobel Prize for Economics that went to Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, and Michael Kremer. The first is the focus on poverty, which for some reason is rare for the Prize. The second is that one of the winners is a woman – Esther Duflo – which is only the second time that’s happened in the history of the prize.

Having said that, there are a few things that worry me about this prize. The three won for their work on adapting Randomized Controlled Trials (RCT) to development interventions. You know, the type of experiment scientists use to figure out which new drugs might treat diseases. You have a control group that gets a placebo, and the treatment group that gets the drug you’re testing, at least in its most classic form. Except in this case the control and treatment groups are communities, or schools, or anywhere poor people are found.

The method is a powerful one for trying out ideas and generating data on what works better. The prize winners have tried it with immunization rates, microenterprise programs, refugee livelihoods, and a stack of other problems related to poverty. I recently participated in an RCT in West Africa, measuring the effects of a radio program on levels of political tolerance. For that radio show, it’s hard to imagine another method that would have produced convincing results.

It works great for drugs. What could go wrong applying it to social problems? Turns out quite a bit. A lot of ink has been spilled over this issue, so let me focus on the most concerning ones.

Service Delivery – RCT works best for micro-interventions or service delivery, that is, interventions dealing with a single problem like how to increase immunization rates or use of bed nets. For these purposes the method is powerful. For anything more profound though, the method ignores the wider structural issues that create poverty and keep people in it. The trend in recent years has been to see the systems that people rely on, and that often fail them. Understanding these complex systems has led us to understand that local efforts must be accompanied by regional interventions and connection with national or international policy to really change things. With RCTs, there is a risk of “individualizing” the problem of poverty. The onus is on individual behavior. If you just use a bed net, or if you just get your teachers to show up at school, then your problems would be solved. This Victorian view of poverty, which sees the individual character as the cause of poverty, ignores the systems that are so important to keeping people poor.

As 15 leading economists (including two other Nobel Prize winners) recently pointed out in The Guardian,

Handing out performance bonuses to teachers, for example, is an inadequate response to education budgets that have been slashed in order to pay down onerous external debts.

Water purification tablets are too little in the face of droughts induced by climate change; what is at stake is an ecological emergency that demands coordinated public policy strategies. In agriculture, real progress requires putting an end to the excessive subsidies paid by rich nations to large producers, regulating food commodity derivatives markets, and ending the land grabs that dispossess the small-scale farmers who play vital roles in feeding the world.

I get it, though, not all interventions have to take on the whole mess at once. Which would be fine, if the “randomistas” (as the more fervent evangelists have come to be known) didn’t pose RCT as the gold standard, the only method that reveals the Truth. In her 2010 Ted talk, Esther Duflo in fact suggests that without RCTs “we are not any better than the Medieval doctors and their leeches.”  Which would come as a surprise to all those astronomers, paleontologists, and other scientists who somehow find a way to do good science with RCTs.

Policy can’t be randomized – Because RCTs work best on discrete interventions, they really aren’t much help in policy change, which drives much of the change we work on. Poverty is a political phenomenon, and contested control over state policy and resources determines as much about people’s life chances as access to microloans or self-help workshops. Unfortunately, this contested terrain is a tough place to do RCTs, so they’re not much help there. There is stacks of great work these days on how to do and assess advocacy and policy change work that takes into account how social change really happens in a fundamental way. Getting better at doing RCTs should not deter us from pushing these approaches even farther.

Cost – RCTs work best when there is a lot of data, to cover over the inevitable differences across individuals and groups. Leaving aside the issue for a moment of whether you can really find “control groups” across large numbers of people, the result is that interventions tend to be large and expensive. Which would be fine if they actually solved the root causes of poverty in key areas, but they don’t. So the risk of donors pivoting scarce resources from the messy and long term work of building social power and bringing about policy change to the flashy results provided by RCTs is a concern. Given the trends to improving “aid effectiveness,” there is a danger that short term results will take precedence over long term effectiveness.

So congratulations to the three winners, and hats off to them for innovating in what is often a moribund space. Let’s keep in mind that RCTs are one tool among many, better suited for some purposes than others. And let’s keep figuring out how to bring about the fundamental social change that so many of us are working for, using these tools and the many others that we have in our tool kits.

How Do Social Movements Fund Themselves?

Social movements often struggle with finding the material resources needed to support themselves. Yet with seemingly little to work with, social movements grow, thrive, and succeed. How do they do it?

We’re looking at this question right now in Mexico. Together with Scott DuPree of Civil Society Transitions, we are doing three case studies of how people’s movements in Mexico are getting what it takes to organize people, craft good messages, get the word out widely, and protect their rights in the face of corporate and state opposition.

I was in Mexico recently and spoke to a Mexican TV news station about what we were doing. Here are excerpts. (If you want to see the whole story, you can watch it here.)

If your Spanish is a bit rusty, here’s what we said:

“For us it is interesting to see how people organize, participate, to defend their rights, and to defend their economic and cultural interests. We will also have a two or three page summary and also a presentation to use in public forums. If we can give a little help to understand our struggles in the world, it would be good.”

The three cases involve communities fighting against an ammonia plant to be built on the shores of a thriving coastal fishery, a proposed gold mine in an area supported by tourism, and a massive dam that will displace Indigenous people and threaten fisheries downstream. We’re finding that people are ingenious in coming up with what they need to keep campaigns moving, and that it makes a huge difference who it comes from. Movement allies who support them – local NGOs, businesses, and sympathetic donors – can not match the huge money that corporations are putting in. But organizers turn down the much greater amounts of money, goods, and services that corporations are offering in order to maintain trust within the movement.

The work is funded by the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, based in Washington, DC. We will be releasing the study late in 2019.

Our new publication in the Stanford Social Innovation Review: Crackdown on Environmentalists

Stanford Social Innovation Review has just published our blog, Crackdown on Environmental Action: How Funders Can Respond.

In the face of increasing restrictions from legal barriers to murder, environmental and conservation funders are finding new ways to support civil society organizations. The blog draws on our recent briefing on the issue for environmental funders, Closing Civil Society Space: What Environmental Funders Need to Know. This issue cuts across all areas of citizen action, with some unique issues in the environmental realm where megaprojects by governments and corporations so often threaten community livelihoods and health.

Funders and Closing Space

By Chris Allan

What’s going on here? Internets of funders. Consulting contracts for services. Telling the story of the value of citizen action. Networks with multiple, diverse connections.

Foundations and civil society organizations are finding ways around the ballooning restrictions on what citizens can do. The Funders Initiative on Civil Society counted nearly 60 reports in the last two years on the closing space for civil society, most focused on diagnosing the issues. Citizens from China to the United States are finding themselves legally restricted and harassed, threatened with shut down or violence, and accused of being against development or agents of foreign influence.

What’s a funder to do?

Fortunately, the burgeoning field building social resilience gives us tools to keep operating in the face of shocks and stresses. When governments restrict NGO activity, non-registered, informal organizations step up. When foundations are threatened, they create coalitions with other funders to advocate, and to create pooled funds that change the game. Scott DuPree and I document all this in our recent article in The Foundation Review, and we suggest a simple yet powerful framework for understanding what might help.

Dozens of funders told us how they are responding with:

  1. Varied procedures– rethinking how to support social action
  2. Multiple strategies– opening up to a variety of ways of solving problems
  3. Adaptive environment– improving the conditions that organizations operate in.

In each of these areas, using a resilience lens show how to increase the capacity of organizations to adapt to these changing conditions. Funding organizations are more resilient when they increase their:

  1. Flexibility– The more ability you have to change processes, procedures, and strategies, the more likely you are to continue to support civil society in new ways.
  2. Diversity and redundancy– The ability to fund through multiple channels – directly, through intermediaries, or via pooled funds – allows you to keep support flowing. And supporting different kinds of civil society organizations that vary in strategies, structure, legal status, geographic focus, scale of operations, and styles of working diversifies the ways you work on social issues, and the likelihood that you’ll be able to continue.
  3. Ability to learn and resourcefulness– The ability to monitor changing conditions and adjust operations accordingly, experimenting with new approaches, increases your capacity to be effective in changing circumstances.

So in addition the tactics noted in the opening of this blog, there are a lots of others. Fellowships. New revenue sources like small businesses and rent. Funds for non-registered organizations. Support to triple bottom line businesses. Joint advocacy to protect the right to citizen action.

There is no magic formula to respond to the closing space of civil society. The right approach will vary with local conditions and what you’re trying to do. But learning what makes us resilient, what allows us to weather the changes we encounter in our work, increases our capacity to adapt to whatever happens.

What have you seen that is working to keep support to civil society flowing? I’d love to hear in the comments below.

You can read the full article here.