Scientific post-colonialism: randomized trials vs. global poverty

April 24, 2009

Back in ’05 I ganked a story from Marginal Revolution about randomized trials of NGO programs in poor countries. Examples from MIT’s Poverty Action Lab:

Colonialist? You decide. My story:

By randomly splitting people into two groups, one of which receives an experimental intervention, researchers can set up potentially simple, unbiased comparisons between two approaches.

The emergence of cheap, skilled labor in India and other countries during the 1990s changed that, Banerjee says, because these workers could collect the data inexpensively. At the same time, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were proliferating and started looking for ways to evaluate their antipoverty programs.

Fast forward to yesterday, when Tyler Cowen tells me two of the economists who co-founded the MIT lab are on somebody’s short-list for an economics prize considered a prelude to the Nobel.

[T]he clear favorite is Esther Duflo, 36, who leads the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Jameel Poverty Action Lab with MIT colleague Abhijit Banerjee.

Re: the other co-founder, Sendhil Mullainathan:

One insight: The behavioral weaknesses of the very poor are no different than the weaknesses of people in all walks of life, but because the poor have less margin for error, their behavioral weaknesses can be much more costly.

Ahem. Indeed.

So anyway, where to pitch a story? If only the idea of incremental good works had cultural caché.

Update: the winner was Emmanuel Saez, who studies income inequality.


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