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development research

Have RCTs taken over development economics?

David McKenzie's picture

Last week the “State of Economics, State of the World” conference was held at the World Bank. I had the pleasure of discussing (along with Martin Ravallion) Esther Duflo’s talk on “The Influence of Randomized Controlled Trials on Development Economics Research and on Development Policy”. The website should have links to the papers and video stream replay up (if not already, then soon).

The first part of Esther’s talk traced out the growth in RCTs in development economics. She pointed out that in 2000 the top-5 journals published 21 articles in development, of which 0 were RCTs, while in 2015 there were 32, of which 10 were RCTs – so pretty much all the growth in development papers in top journals comes from RCTs. She also showed that the more recently BREAD members had received their PhD, the more likely they were to have done at least one RCT.
In my discussion I expanded on these facts to put them in context, and argue against what I see as a couple of strawman arguments: 1) that top journals only publish RCTs, and that RCTs have taken over development research; and 2) that young researchers have a “randomize or bust” attitude and refuse to do anything but RCTs. I thought I’d summarize what I said on both here.

What’s in a title? Signaling external validity through paper titles in development economics

David Evans's picture

External validity is a recurring concern in impact evaluation: How applicable is what I learn in Benin or in Pakistan to some other country? There are a host of important technical issues around external validity, but at some level, policy makers and technocrats in Country A examine the evidence from Country B and think about how likely it is to apply in Country A. But how likely are they to consider the evidence from Country B in the first place?

The alchemy of relationships and the production of evidence

Humanity Journal's picture

This post is by Holly Porter, a visiting fellow at the Department of International Development of the London School for Economics and Political Science and lead researcher for northern Uganda for the Justice and Security Research Programme.  It is a contribution to an online symposium on the changing nature of knowledge production in fragile states. Be sure to read other entries by Deval Desai and Rebecca TapscottLisa Denney and Pilar Domingo, Michael WoolcockMorten Jerven, and Alex de Waal.

People eat at a restaurant in KampalaThe piece is a welcome provocation to discussion, even if ultimately I am left with the thought: there is a rather fundamental difference between tomatoes on a supply chain and the pursuit of understanding human experience. I show that here, intentionally choosing to write from a personal perspective, rather than in more academic prose.

Two main responses spring to mind in light of my own (anthropological) work:

1) Knowledge is not an “alienable” commodity.
2) The complexity of human relationships in the research process are not best captured with reference to market forces.


The piece raises an underlying question about the production of “knowledge:” is knowledge a kind of raw material –- is it an “alienable commodity”? The idea that data is a commodity implies that it is something; that it is a thing which exists independently and apart from the intentionality of human relationships. Perhaps some information is similar to a raw material that can be extracted in crude form but the kind of “knowledge” which interests me is born of shared experiences and long-term relationships. Knowledge appears to me less of a raw material to be processed and packed, and more the stuff of human interaction.

Ending the shame and stigma of poverty

Roland Lomme's picture

A forthcoming book (The Shame of it: Global Perspectives on Anti-poverty Policy, Gubrium E. K., Pellissery S. and Lodemel I., Policy Press, 2013), the first of a series reporting on a stream of field surveys in developed and developing countries, draws attention on the social, political and psychological (in one word human) dimensions of poverty and stresses the risk that anti-poverty policies and programs inadvertently stigmatize their beneficiaries and aggravate their own shame.

Crowdsourcing Poverty Research

Gabriel Demombynes's picture

A tremendous amount of development research is all but unknown in the countries that are the subject of that research. In Kenya, this is the case with path-breaking papers like the Kremer-Miguel Worms study and the Cohen-Dupas insecticide-treated net pricing experiment.

To increase the visibility of such policy-relevant work, we’re producing a "Kenya 2011 Poverty Research Review" that will be published early next year as part of our larger Poverty Update report, which will be widely publicized in Kenya.

The Poverty Research Review will give an overview of poverty-related research on Kenya published in 2011 in journals or working paper series. There is a wide pool of work to draw from: a search on "Kenya" and "poverty" in Google Scholar produces 12,900 references for works produced in 2011.

As an experiment, I’m going to try drawing from the wisdom of crowds for this project.  Please help me with your suggestions for high-quality papers on poverty-related issues in Kenya that you would like to see highlighted in our review.

Too little knowledge is a dangerous thing

Jishnu Das's picture

Stefan Dercon’s wordle based on our data of the countries that economists work on led Chris Blattman and Tyler Cowen to wonder why there are more papers on Latin America relative to Africa in the Journal of Development Economics, a leading journal in the field of development economics. We looked at this issue in our paper onthe Geography of Academic Research; here are four figures to add to the discussion (two of them are in our paper).

Fact 1: “Just” Income: There is a strong correlation between GDP and publications—a doubling of GDP leads to a 37 percent increase in the number of publications on the country. The US is bang on the regression line relating GDP to publications—a lot more is produced on the US because it is big and rich. Surprisingly, most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are also on the regression line! In fact, there is no “SSA penalty” in the production of empirical research—there is very little work on most SSA countries mostly because they are poor and small.  That 36,649 papers were written on the US between 1985 and 2004 relative to 4 on Burundi, 5 on Benin or 20 on Niger is largely explained by income and population size. As Bill Easterly puts it “the poor get the worst of everything, including the worst economics”.