Thoughts on (and from) yet-unread randomistas’ books

Why I am looking forward to reading these books:
More Than Good Intentions and Poor Economics were published last month. By a happy coincidence, I have worked in Ghana and India – two countries that feature prominently in many of the accounts in both the books. Also, these books have stories from field experiments conducted by IPA and CMF (an org I have worked with).
On RCTs, ‘big ideas’ and potential alliances:
From the book websites and the numerous (mostly positive) reviews, the books seem to contain many examples of interventions that have worked and of those that haven’t. Put together, they seem to debunk the notion of ‘big ideas’ that can wipe off poverty and deprivation. Serious implementers know this – when partnering with researchers, they were not always looking to build ‘big ideas’ about what worked in development.

RCTs can identify interventions that work and those that don’t and serve as a starting point to develop theories about the real world development problems that are broader than the findings from separate studies. The natural follow-up would be to combine RCTs and rigorous qualitative work to delve into the processes through which the identified impact was achieved – thereby posing the two realms of research not as competitors, but as fruitful collaborators. And no, I am not just being idealistic – such collaborations are beginning to happen – see the ‘graduation pilot’ evaluations, for instance.

A tribute to implementers, those that are willing to learn:
Like any publication of RCT results, these books are in part, a tribute to partner organisations that signed up to implement these studies as part of their operations, which I know from experience to be a costly and (often) tedious undertaking. As much as RCTs mean researchers spending time on the ground engaging with real-world programme implementation from the very start, they also usually involve partner organisations that are brave and willing to experiment with their implementation models, while subjecting themselves to an external evaluation.
For some of these implementing partners (that I have worked closely with), I know that they were mostly looking for solutions that could work for them. Sure, everyone benefits from what they learn from other experiments that work, but serious implementers are also aware that there are no blue-prints – that to make it work, they have to take a good idea and tweak it to suit their context and capacities. Its only natural therefore that process evaluations and qualitative studies that accompany RCTs would help implementers learn more about the pathways to the kind of impact their interventions achieve.

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