RCT Debate Continued

22 May

Blattman links to a response by Arvind Subramanian to Kristof’s piece (see prior post) on RCTs and then gives some career advice that seems meant for me, despite the fact that I hope to disregard it:

From Subramanian:

The RCT approach to development pioneered and propagated by Professors Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer is indeed a very positive and significant development. But the key point is that this approach sheds light, under a limited set of circumstances, on whether certain policy interventions work. They do not—I repeat, do not—shed any light on whether aid per se works. The distinction is important, not intellectual nitpicking.

There is a larger sense in which Kristof’s invocation of RCTs to advocate aid could be misleading or mis-interpreted. Even if RCT-proven interventions provide some targets towards which modest amounts of foreign assistance could be directed, they shed no light at all about the aggregate effects of larger scale foreign assistance.

The larger developmental effects of aid may be good or bad but RCTs cannot help us distinguish them.  We are still left to rely on other evidence—economic and historic—about the effects of aid in stunting institutional development, in creating aid-dependence, in entrenching the hold of the bad guys, and in making the export sector uncompetitive in a way that is detrimental to long run development

This isn’t so much a critique as a caveat to the RCT model for aid. Of course, the macroeconomic effects of aid will be impossible to study in a strictly scientific way. Still, the idea that the RCTs are pushing for evidence based aid policies in general is probably one of the more important factors in favor of the trend.

And Blattman on the future failure of the career I don’t yet have:

Clearly I think RCTs have a huge role to play in aid and development research, but should young academics be answering this clarion call?

If I had to pick development research like stocks, I would be shorting program evaluations and buying the unfashionable stuff–including the macroeconomic, historical and institutional research.

I have substantive reasons for saying so, but as a general rule, any research trumpeted in the opinion column of the Times is probably on its way off the frontier.

Thanks a lot Chris.

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