19 September 2012

Associated Press Joins RCT Debate

The Millennium Development Villages provide the entryway for the Associated Press to cover the debate over randomized control trials and the finer debate over the use of RCTs to evaluate the MVP.
Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Global Development, says a similar project called Integrated Rural Development was attempted in the 1970s and 80s by the World Bank and failed because it could not survive without donor funding. 
Clemens, who researches ways of making aid more effective, sees a similar fate awaiting the Millennium Villages. "How likely is it that without the lavish expenditures of a New York-centered philanthropist-funded organization, the project can continue for long?" he said in an interview.
Sachs says his project is different from the 1970s venture, mainly because of technological advances. 
"What we are doing was not tried before and could not have been. ... The earlier programs did not include computers, email, internet for data management, systems control, mapping, monitoring, banking, payments, health care, teaching, process control, value chains and countless more areas," he wrote in an email. 
Clemens and his co-author Gabriel Demombynes, a senior economist at the World Bank in Nairobi, have published papers and editorials over the years claiming the project is overstating its impact. They say it boasts of gains in indicators like child mortality, without noting these are insignificant compared to changes happening at a relevant regional or national level. That should be the critical question for every project like this one - "what would have happened if the project hadn't come along?" Clemens said. 
Sachs acknowledged in an interview that his project's evaluations have lacked the rigor of a randomized control trial, but said he is using interventions that have already been proven to work. "This would not be satisfactory if we were introducing a new untested medicine. 
I wouldn't take the medicine myself," he said. "But if what we're really trying to do is show communities that at low cost it's possible to do a number of important and proven things, and here are some ways to do that, I think this can play an important role."
Laura Burke's reporting is nothing new to readers of this blog as the same story appeared here at the time of the debates peak earlier in the year. However, it is worth noting because the issue got some well deserved (though late) attention and hopefully is a sign of some more reporting from the AP.