Lant Pritchett wrote a blog for the Center for Global Development website last week on how development, including the decade-long RCT movement, is a faith-based activity. He says, “The delightfully quirky aspect of the success of the randomista movement is that it was, and remains, entirely faith-based. That is, the central claim of the movement was not just that more inputs(intellectual and monetary) into RCTs would write better (and more publishable) papers, which is, in a development logframe sense, just an output. The claim that attracted resources and support from development organizations and attention from the press was the claim that “rigorous” evidence from these RCTs could, should, and would produce better development projects and policies and, hence, ultimately better outcomes for human beings…But there was never any theory or evidence that a key, or even important, constraint on development practice was the lack of rigorous evidence about causal impacts, or that the production of such evidence would change practices. This was to be taken on faith.”
So his answer to the question posed in the title: none, really. And indeed, this comment doesn’t just apply to RCTs but to all kinds of development research in general (including what we here at rice do), if the goal of that research is to affect policy. So should we just give up? Well, probably not. But there are things that we can do to enhance the likelihood that our research is relevant for the people who do make decisions.
Our friends Heather Lanthorn and Suvojit Chattopadhyay recently wrote a related World Bank blog that talks about how we can do more formative work in the beginning to better design research questions, the answers of which will more likely be used by policy makers afterwards. They conclude with, “In sum, we think that careful formative and needs-assessment work on what decision-makers (and potential implementers) want to see to be convinced and what types of evidence will inform decision-making may lead to the generation of evidence that is not only policy-related but genuinely policy-relevant.”