The rise of randomized trials in economic research

Using randomized prospective trials in economic development policy is not new. Since the 1960s, the U.S. has occasionally implemented them to answer important practical questions in health care, welfare and education policy. By randomly splitting people into two groups, one of which receives an experimental intervention, researchers can set up potentially simple, unbiased comparisons between two approaches. But these evaluations typically cost hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, largely putting them out of reach of academic researchers, says development economist Abhijit Banerjee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The emergence of cheap, skilled labor in India and other countries during the 1990s changed that, Banerjee says, because these workers could collect the data inexpensively. At the same time, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were proliferating and started looking for ways to evaluate their antipoverty programs.

In 2003 Banerjee and his colleagues Esther Duflo and Sendhil Mullainathan founded an M.I.T. institute devoted to the use of randomized trials, called the Poverty Action Lab. Lab members have completed or begun a variety of projects, including studies of public health measures, small-scale loans (called microcredit), the role of women in village councils, AIDS prevention, and barriers to fertilizer use. The studies typically piggyback on the expansion of an NGO or government program. Researchers work with the organization to select appropriate measures of the program’s outcome and hire an agency to collect or spot-check the data.

Here is the full story.  Here is the home page of Poverty Action Lab.  Here are their completed projects.  Here is the Primary School Deworming Project.  And on this Thanksgiving weekend, I once again express my gratitude for the link from


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