When I was a high school student in Belgium, our history textbook included a reproduction of a painting entitled “The Drunkard” by Eugène Laermans. The painting was included in the section describing the history of the labor movement in the country and its achievements in passing legislation aimed at improving the situation of the working class. In particular, the painting was meant to illustrate why the Belgian law introducing child benefits – monthly transfers to all families raising children until age 18 (or until age 25 as long as they are still students) - stipulates that these benefits are paid to the mother. The law still holds today, even if it allows for exceptions when the mother is not present in the household.
My job market paper brings some good news to the impact evaluation community. First, it shows that causal inference in randomized controlled trials (RCTs) relies on weaker assumptions than was previously thought. Second, it shows that RCTs capture local treatment effects that are less local than we previously believed.
After last week’s review of Mark Rosenzweig’s review of Poor Economics, I got asked, via email and comments, what I thought about Martin Ravallion’s review in the same issue of the Journal of Economic Literature.
The English cartoonist Ashleigh Brilliant once offered the following piece of advice to strategists of all sorts who are concerned with their reputation: “To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first, and call whatever you hit the target…” With little time and fewer resources than elsewhere to battle the burning issues of poverty, insecurity and sociopolitical instability, economists and policymakers in developing countries may not be in the position to benefit from such cynical wisdom. Rather than listening to Ashleigh Brilliant, they should always keep in mind the constraints they face and the urgency of the situation in poor countries, and reflect on the maxim that recommends to “always aim before shooting.
A policy and research domain where there is a serious deficit of strategic thinking and prioritization is that of evaluation, which is traditionally defined as the systematic assessment of the worth or merit of some project, program or policy. The importance of evaluation cannot be underestimated: first, in a world where ideas compete constantly for funding, it is essential to ensure that value for money is at the core of public policy. Second, only by assessing the pertinence and efficiency of development initiatives can we get a full picture of their outcomes, and ensure accountability. Third and perhaps even more importantly, evaluation helps define the criteria for decision-making on new initiatives, and chart the course of future action. It highlights what works and what does not. It is therefore not surprising that evaluation has become a hot area of research and policy.
Update: Lant Pritchett has kindly responded to my invitation and posted his thoughts: "No need for unmet need." Check out the comments section.
Ask most people to name the most effective means of raising incomes of people in poor countries, and what would they say?
Deworming? It increased primary school participation and improved health, but in the short-term at least seems unlikely to raise household income.
Conditional cash transfers? This might be a popular answer, with evidence from a number of countries that they have increased household expenditure , schooling, and health outcomes. But even though Governments devote significant resources to such programs, the absolute annual increases in household income and expenditure are still at most US$20-40 per capita for participating households.
I bet that facilitating international migration is not very high up the list of interventions people think of. But it should be. In a new working paper, John Gibson and I evaluate the development impacts of New Zealand’s new seasonal worker program, the RSE. The figure below compares the per-capita income gain we estimate to those from microfinance, CCTs, and from my previous research giving grants of $100-200 to microenterprises. It is simply no contest!