Randomized Control Testing
“It can often seem like the problems of global poverty are intractable, but over the course of my lifetime and career, the fraction of the world’s people living in poverty has dropped dramatically.” – Dr. Michael Kremer

In October 2019, Michael Kremer of Harvard and Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee of MIT won the Nobel Prize in Economics for their extensive, randomized control testing-based research in tackling global poverty. At 46 years old, Duflo is the youngest economics laureate ever and only the second woman to receive the prize over its 50-year history.

Incorporating Scientific Studies

The trio set out to establish a more scientific approach to studying the effects of investment projects in the developing world. One of the ways they discovered that they could accomplish this is through randomized control testing. Commonly used in the medical field and made legitimate in the social sciences by the trio, this type of testing involves randomly selecting communities as beneficiaries of experimental projects. Randomly selecting the beneficiaries removes selection bias, providing more accurate and legitimate results.

Randomized Control Testing in India and Kenya

Duflo and Banerjee used randomized control testing experiments in schools in India in an effort to improve the quality of education. The authors discovered that simply getting students to school was not sufficient in improving test scores. Previous research also noted that additional resources, even additional teachers, had minimal impact on students’ performance.

The laureates discovered instead that providing support for an interventionist to work with students behind on their educational skills and making computer-assisted learning available so that all students could have additional math practice improved their scores. In the first year, the average test scores increased by 0.14 standard deviations and in the second year, they increased by 0.28 standard deviations. In the second year, the children initially in the bottom third improved by over 0.4 standard deviations. Those sent for remedial education with the interventionist saw 0.6 standard deviations increase and the computer-assisted learning improved math scores by 0.35 standard deviations in the first year and 0.47 in the second year for all students equally. These results provide clear and definite numbers on the success of the program and show that those who experienced the most benefits were the students in the greatest need of assistance.

Kremer completed a similar study in Kenya. Again, the research found that additional resources did little to improve the learning abilities of the weaker students and that much of the school policies and practices were helpful to the advancement of the already high achieving students. Another of Kremer’s studies in Kenya further showed the impact small interventions can have on student retention. His research found that by bringing deworming medication directly into the classroom, school absenteeism rates decreased by 25 percent, leading to higher secondary school attendance, higher wages and a higher standard of living.

Impact vs. Performance Evaluations

The key to Kremer, Duflo and Banerjee’s success was not the result of pumping out positive statistics. Their success, and reason for winning the Nobel Prize, came from the rigorous scientific approach they took with their studies by using randomized control testing that led to not only positive results but also to meaningful impact where they were working and beyond. For instance, after the success in Kenya with the deworming, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) agreed to finance Kenyan scientists to travel to India to help expand the program. Soon, 150 million children were receiving treatments of deworming medication each year.

This example shows the lasting impact of the work of the laureates. When the fields of economics and politics use more rigorous and randomized studies, it becomes clearer what programs work and which do not, creating greater efficiency and enabling successful projects to expand. The work of the three professors has already led to the leaders of USAID to question the utility of performance evaluations over impact evaluations. In other words, the agency has started to see a shift from success defined as the generated output of the programs to success as the net gain or impact as a direct result of the programs.

Altogether, the work of Kremer, Duflo and Banerjee has raised the bar for economic and social research in the future. Their work has set new expectations that will force researchers to create more detailed and accurate studies that will continue to guide policy.

– Scott Boyce
Photo: Flickr

The Nobel Prize and Anti-Poverty Efforts
The Nobel Prize is an international award that many people recognize and shares its name with Alfred Nobel, innovator and inventor of dynamite, among other things. Somewhat ironically, the Peace Prize given in his name holds the most prestige of nearly any accolade an individual can receive in his or her lifetime, but only constitutes one of the fields in which the committee can award a Nobel Prize. The others, physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and economic sciences, celebrate specific advancements or landmarks in their respective disciplines. The Nobel Prize and anti-poverty efforts have more in common than one might think. The Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences emerged in 1968, making it the newest of the prizes, but nonetheless important. The 2019 edition went to a trio of Boston, Massachusetts-based economists, two from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one from Harvard University, two highly acclaimed and respected academic institutions with cutting edge research capabilities in multiple fields. Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer deservingly received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for their experimental approach in alleviating global poverty, closely tying the 2019 Nobel Prize and anti-poverty efforts. 

Groundbreaking Statistics

Banerjee, Duflo and Kremer form past and present leadership of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), a global research center with the goal of reducing poverty by advocating policy formation on the basis of scientific evidence. Beginning in 2003, J-PAL works with governments and non-government organizations to identify and carry out interventions where its data analysis deems them most effective. Using randomized control trials (RCTs) similar to ones used in medical fields as the core of its evaluation, its methods have become widely accepted by the global economic policy community. Over the course of the last 20 years, J-PAL linked 986 randomized evaluations across its affiliates in 83 countries to understand if interventions work or not and allow the numerous social sector organizations who use them to adjust policies and practices accordingly. These interventions focus on a wide variety of issues, such as education deficiency and child health. Its studies can have a profound impact, as over five million Indian children received tutoring as a result of one of the studies, the foundation of its Nobel Prize and anti-poverty efforts.

Economic Masterminds

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences attributes its efforts as integral to the evolution of development economics into a flourishing field. The academy, which annually awards each prize, notably made Duflo the youngest economic laureate in its history and only the second woman to receive the prize, making 2020’s Nobel Prize and anti-poverty efforts that much more significant. Just as a landmark, the committee deemed J-PAL’s focus on real-world solutions with economic applications extraordinary, whereas previous awards in the field of Economic Sciences boasted theoretical achievements. Rather than focusing on improving the developing world as a whole through economic theory or answers to macroeconomic questions, J-PAL addresses need at a localized level and introduces practical solutions to tangible problems. Beyond the tutoring in India example, J-PAL tested how eradicating parasitic worms affected school attendance among children, the placement of additional teachers in a classroom or monitoring teachers’ attendance with cameras, how access to bank or microfinance loans can improve living standards and even how voting behavior varies depending on specific appeals made by candidates in an election campaign.

J-PAL vs the World

However, despite objective advancements based on RCTs, people should not view them as unmitigated successes, argues Sanjay Reddy of Foreign Policy Magazine. He notes that these Randomized Control Trials promised to assess whether people benefitted from a change in circumstances simply because they had the motivation or better positioning to fare better from it. In reality, he says, one cannot tell whether these projects or initiatives worked because people took advantage of them or because they just work, though the link between these recipients of the 2019 Nobel Prize and anti-poverty efforts is undeniable.

Reddy’s analysis may seem like splitting hairs, especially against the background of the broader perspective J-PAL’s studies bring. Karla Hoff of the Brookings Institute praises the Nobel Prize and anti-poverty efforts that J-PAL has undertaken for a fundamental shift in the culture of development economics and economic as a whole. In addition to directly helping people most in need, the nonprofit challenged deep assumptions about individuals and the decisions they make, questioning the essence of economic development. It altered many things about the field, including the ways, places and kinds of people economists work with.

Alex Myers
Photo: Flickr

Universities Fighting Global Poverty
In any global issue, college students are some of the most useful people in spreading awareness about global poverty. Throughout the years, many colleges have joined to spread awareness about impoverishment and the following five are just a few examples of the many domestic and international universities fighting global poverty.

5 Universities Fighting Global Poverty

  1. Manhattan College: This NYC liberal arts college joined the One Campus Challenge, an initiative for universities fighting global poverty, back around its conception in 2007. The college remains one of the over 2,000 participants in the challenge. In an article by Thomas Hallissey, the then leader, Kieran O’Shea, managed to recruit 66 students into the campus’ chapter of the challenge. O’Shea became inspired to join the initiative after he saw other colleges join.
  2. Ohio State University: Sally Miller, a plant pathologist and professor from OSU, has focused her research on the availability of food in developing countries. According to an article from 2014 and about Miller’s travel to the African nation of Senegal, Miller’s research focuses on pest control and agricultural development as a means of fighting global poverty. Her travel and research was part of the International Plant Diagnostic Network. The project was incredibly widespread involving scientists from several U.S. universities including Ohio State and partner institutions in the 12 member countries of the IPDN.
  3. The University of Chicago: With so many universities fighting global poverty head-on and coming up with solutions, it is important to have a view of the areas in need of attention. In October 2019, researchers from the University of Chicago created the Million Neighborhoods Map. According to UChicago’s article, this map is “a groundbreaking visual tool that provides the first comprehensive look at informal settlements across Africa, helping to identify communities most in need of roads, power, water, sanitation and other infrastructure.” People could use such technology to lay a foundation for future solutions, as it is difficult to come across a solution if one cannot view the problem on a widespread scale. Reports determine that this map shall receive updates to include other African regions as well as Asian areas as well.
  4. Harvard and MIT: It would make sense that profound solutions to global poverty would come from two of the most prestigious universities in the world. MIT professor Abhijit Banerjee and his wife, Esther Duflo, as well as Harvard professor Michael Kremer, received Nobel Prizes for their research on “how to improve school results in Kenya and India, studies on micro-financing, price sensitivity to health-care costs and lifting vaccination rates,” according to a Bloomberg article. These professors and economists take a different standpoint on the issue of global poverty, treating it from a scientific point of view. They also focus on the poor as people in need of help rather than mere numbers.

Whether students or professors lead these initiatives, one cannot doubt that universities fighting global poverty have and will continue to have a significant impact. The efforts to raise awareness about poverty, understand and improve agriculture in developing countries and map countries to determine infrastructure needs are just a few of the components that should help reduce poverty around the globe.

– Christian Moore
Photo: Flickr