A new MIT masters in Data, Economics, and Development Policy from MIT and JPAL

Today MIT announced the launch of a new masters in Data, Economics, and Development Policy (DEDP) offered by MIT’s Economics Department and J-PAL. The masters will be a hybrid of online and in-person courses. After taking courses in development economics, microeconomics, data analysis, and the practicalities of running RCTs, candidates will take an in-person exam at sites around the world (where people take their SATs and GREs). Students will then receive a “MicroMasters” and the top candidates will be invited to attend MIT in person to complete the full masters (online courses will be converted to MIT credit). After a semester of classes in MIT’s Economics Department, students will complete a summer of practical research—including on J-PAL projects. Those with access to the internet and high school level calculus and willing to work hard will be able to access some of the best teaching the world has to offer and can compete for a place at MIT.

Why have we put so much energy over the last few years into developing this MicroMasters with a path to a full in-person’s MIT masters? We believe passionately that development policy can benefit from more people rigorously trained in data and economics. We know there are many very smart dedicated people around the world who could benefit enormously from an MIT training but can’t access the level of courses they need to get into a top university. Even if they could, many of them can’t leave their families for one or two years for a typical masters. With the MicroMasters, thousands will be able to take technical economics courses while they work at their day job. I was fortunate to be able to get my masters and PhD in economics, so I feel particularly pleased to open this opportunity to others. We also believe that MIT will benefit enormously from the diverse range of experience that the in person students will bring to our classrooms.  

DEDP is also unusual in being much more practical than many other masters programs: it fits the proud MIT tradition of uniting mind and hand “mens et manus”. One of the five online courses is the soon to be released “Designing and Running Randomized Evaluations”.  This will cover developing different RCT designs, how to do power calculations in practice, survey design, data collection management, and units on measurement (I just recorded the lecture on measuring women’s empowerment). And those who come to MIT will spend their summer experiencing the rigors of data collection in the field, often as part of a J-PAL project.

Finally, we are hoping that other universities will use the MicroMasters courses and exam as a launch pad to their own DEDP masters so that many more in-person places are offered at top institutions around the world.

The MicroMasters program is now open for enrollment for courses beginning in February 2017; the DEDP master’s degree will launch in 2019. For more information and to sign up for the MicroMaster see this link.

It’s time to take on politics

A remarkable new World Bank report makes the case for a radical change in the Bank’s approach to political systems. For years the Bank and other international agencies have sought to give the poor a voice in health, education, and infrastructure decisions through channels unrelated to politics. They have set up school committees, clinic committees, water and sanitation committees on which sit members of the local community. These members are then asked to “oversee” the work of teachers, health workers, and others. But a body of research suggests that this approach has produced disappointing results. More recently, researchers have tested ways to improve accountability of government services by strengthening, rather than ignoring, the political route to oversight. There are a number of quite promising results from a range of countries which have prompted this welcome proposal to change the emphasis of accountability programs at the World Bank.

There is little doubt that in many countries political systems have failed to deliver accountable government. In most poor and middle income countries many teachers and health workers fail to turn up to work, theft of essential drugs is common, as are kickbacks on construction projects. Informal fees are charged for services that by law are meant to be free. A few examples illustrate the point:

  • India: Only half of teachers were teaching during unannounced visits
  • Aceh, Indonesia: Truck drivers spent approximately US$40 on bribes per trip, 13% of the trip cost
  • Sierra Leone: Over 50% of parents reported paying for immunizations which are meant to be free. (Note this was before a big push to make all services for under 5s free)

If politics is not delivering accountable government, a natural response is to attempt to circumvent it: give power directly to consumers who care most about service quality. The result has been a plethora of committees at the very local level. But rarely are these given any real money and power. Teachers and health workers (by far the biggest expenditure in health and education) continue for the most part to be paid by governments.  When researchers have investigated how these committees function on the ground they often look very different from what they appear like on paper. In India, most Village Education Committees that were mandated by the government were not operating: 25% of people whose names were listed as being on the committee when surveyed did not know they had this role. Even the efforts of the otherwise highly effective NGO Pratham failed to achieve effective village engagement through the committee or improve educational outcomes.

There have been some successes, particularly in health. In Uganda, researchers found that most, legally prescribed, local health committees were not active. However, support from an outside NGO and information from a detailed survey of health care quality led to higher attendance of nurses and improvements in health. But this involved very expensive intensive data collection efforts and when the researchers tested a cheaper version without village-specific data there was no positive effect. In Sierra Leone, NGO support to community health committees (with an intensity between that of the two Uganda approaches) was successful in improving health outcomes, cutting health worker absenteeism (paper in progress).

Another type of project that promotes community-level participation, not through the political process but through community action, is Community Driven Development. Grants are given to communities on the condition that there is strong community participation in the decision-making about how the grants are spent. Again the results of rigorous evaluations are rather disappointing: the grants themselves have produced real outputs on the ground, but there is little evidence community participation persists once the grant is finished from RCTs in Sierra Leone, DRC, and Liberia (the last shows some gains though arguably small and confined to specific groups).  

Partly in response to these underwhelming results, attention switched back to enhancing engagement and transparency of the political process. Results from a series of RCTs have been more encouraging. Voters in Brazil respond to the release of audit reports on corruption in municipalities (more corruption, the lower the vote share). Voters in Delhi respond with considerable sophistication to information about how members of parliament spend funds made available for their constituency (increased vote share for those who spend more in the voters’ area or attend committees for issues of importance to voters, and lower vote shares for those who spend money on goods that are not seen as useful such as fountains).

There are some negative effects: publicizing corruption levels when these levels are very high led to lower voter turnout. In Kenya, providing messages about the integrity and efficiency of the electoral commission backfired when there were significant problems with voting systems.

In my view the most promising results are from RCTs of programs that seek to engage voters rather than just provide them with information. In Benin and the Philippines, when political parties held town hall meetings, rather than the normal rallies with little policy content, challengers were able to combat clientelism of the dominant party and increase support. In Sierra Leone, filming and then screening debates between candidates for MP led to increased knowledge about political candidates, their policy positions, and the political process, better alignment on policies between voters and the candidate they voted for, and a shift in votes towards the candidate considered most effective in the debate. MPs elected from constituencies where debates were screened visited their constituency more often, held more meetings with constituents, and were considered to be doing a better job by neutral parties. It was also possible to track debate MPs’ spending to real projects on the ground.  

The accumulated evidence in the last 15 years has changed my view on the best way to improve accountability and it is great to see this shift in this World Bank document, written by Stuti Khemani, with whom I worked to evaluate village-level accountability in India, as well as J-PAL affiliates Claudio Ferraz and Fred Finan. There is likely to be some push back to what some will portray as “the Bank getting involved in elections.”  But as the report sets out, there are many ways the Bank and others can support citizen engagement in ways that do not compromise the Bank’s neutrality.

Not so small

One of the favorite criticisms of randomized control trials (RCTs) in development economics is that they answer “small” questions rather than tackling big (macho?) questions like “what are the causes of growth” or “what is the impact of infrastructure investment.” The poster child for this argument has been studies examining whether deworming pills or Insecticide Treated Nets (ITNs) should be given free or sold at a subsidized price. A key target of criticism was a Cohen and Dupas study showing that take-up of ITNs drops sharply with small changes in price while those who pay for a net are no more likely to use it than those who get it for free. Lant Prittchet bemoans the wasted talent of the best and brightest of a generation working on such insignificant questions. Dani Rodrik and Angus Deaton questioned the usefulness of a study that looked just at pregnant women in one part of Kenya.1

But the work on pricing and health proves exactly the opposite point. It demonstrates how impact evaluations can simultaneously answer questions of immediate practical importance for the partner in the evaluation (how many more kids will sleep under a bednet if the price is reduced from 50 cents to free), and help us understand underlying truths about human behavior (do humans value and use something more if we pay for it, do small costs deter us from doing things that are good for us in the long run). These more general questions are sometimes derided as academic but in the long run are particularly important for policy because they tend to generalize better. A series of studies looking at pricing for different nonacute health products in different countries shows remarkably similar results: sharp declines in take-up with small changes in price (summarized here, here, and here).


Equally importantly there is no evidence that the act of paying for something increases use or that charging helps target products to those who are most likely to need them. It challenged the growing call to judge development programs on financial sustainability rather than cost-effectiveness.

This literature fed into a growing understanding of how bad human beings are at making small sacrifices today for long term health payoffs whether that be forgoing chocolate cake, exercising more, or buying prevention products. This understanding of human behavior is feeding into policy.

In the early 2000s a debate raged about whether to charge for ITNs. Advocates of free distribution said small costs could reduce access by the poor. Those arguing for charging cited anecdotes of bednets being used as wedding veils or fishing nets but neither side had much evidence. The RCTs on price and use were quickly taken up by advocates of free mass distribution and the opposition faded.

Coverage of ITNs in sub-Saharan Africa (the region with the highest burden of malaria) has improved dramatically with the vast majority of coverage accounted for by free mass distribution (43 out of 47 countries had mass free programs). As the great maps from Giving What We Can illustrate, malaria cases have fallen dramatically. A recent article in Nature estimates that 2/3 to 3/4 of the decline in malaria cases between 2000 and 2015 can be attributed to increased net coverage: 450 million cases of malaria and 4 million deaths averted from ITN distribution. That’s anything but small.

1As pregnant women and newborns are the most likely to die of malaria this is the policy relevant group to focus on.

#I look like a policy economist

There is a lot of anguish about the low visibility of women in economics: A list of the most influential economists in The Economist included no women; Justin Wolfers showed how the media gives credit to male rather than female coauthors; Tim Harford noted the proportion of women studying economics in the US has not improved and is falling in the UK; and the AEA held a session today on helping women improve their profile in the media.

The “#ilooklikeaneconomist” hashtag was an attempt to correct the overwhelming predominance of images of men in response to the search term “economics professor.” But “economist” and “economics professor” are not the same thing, and women economists have made important contributions outside of academia. I have written elsewhere about some of the challenges women economists face in the policy world. Here are some of the women policy economists who have inspired me along the way.

Ida Merriam


Ida joined the Social Security Administration virtually from its inception (1936) and worked her way up to head of the research department, where she was a strong and effective advocate for the program.  While her knowledge was encyclopedic, her explanations were always simple, clear, and data-driven.  

Judith Guron

Judith is one of the pioneers of randomized control trials (RCTs) in the social sciences. As director of research from the founding of MDRC (1974), and then president (1986-2004), she was at the forefront of figuring out how to bring RCTs out of the lab and into the world of US policymaking. As she explains in her book Fighting for Reliable Evidence (written with Howard Rolston), this fight was primarily fought by policy economists, with very little engagement of academics until the late 1990s. Her lessons on how to convince agencies to randomize are well worth reading, including for those working in developing countries.

Rachel Lomax

There were very few women economists and even fewer senior women economists when I started work at the UK Treasury in the 1980s. Rachel Lomax was a prominent exception. She went on to be vice president at the World Bank, permanent secretary of Welsh Office, Department of Work and Pensions, and at the Department of Transport, as well as being deputy governor of the Bank of England. As a boss she was both intimidating and inspiring. More than any other senior bureaucrat I have worked with, she pushed us to stay current with the latest economic literature and make sure our decisions reflected the latest research findings. Knowing that she miraculously found time to be current with the literature was a very strong incentive for us to do the same.

Luisa Diogo

I had the privilege of supporting Mozambique through the write-down of much of its bilateral and multilateral debt in 2001 as part of the Highly Indebted Poor Country Initiative. Mozambique was only the second country to reach this point, in large part due to the sound economic management of the then-Minister of Finance Luisa Diogo, who got her master’s in economics from the University of London and went on to become Mozambique’s first woman prime minister. As the only female member of the IMF negotiating team, I loved to watch then-Minister Diogo dominate meetings through superior argument as well as force of personality. She would heap withering scorn on poorly thought-through proposals (including from her own central-bank governor). The result was that everyone went into meetings with her very well prepared.  As prime minister, Madame Diogo used her formidable intellect and reputation to push for free reproductive health care and gender equality across the African continent.

I would love to hear about women policy economists that have inspired others. (Note that I have not included Janet Yellen on this list, even though she is an important and inspiring role model for women in economics, because she made her reputation as an academic economist and only later moved into policy.)

Update on working with governments

In my previous blog I discussed some of the challenges of working with governments on RCTs. My aim was not (as some have suggested) to disparage this work but to give some tips to those who are taking it on. Indeed, it is because I know just how hard it is that I have enormous admiration for those who manage to pull it off. I was fortunate enough to work with the Government of Sierra Leone's Decentralization Secretariat in the aftermath of the civil war as they introduced a system of decentralization to the country (not randomized) and experimented with decentralizing all the way down to villages with the GoBifo program (randomized). Ten years later I am still there and still working with the government.

Despite all the challenges, working with governments can have substantial payoffs. Some of these benefits flow to researchers. As discussed in my previous post, working with governments opens up a whole range of questions that cannot be addressed when working with NGOs or companies. Nor is there anything like trying to run an RCT with a developing-country government to understand just how these governments work and what constraints they operate under. But many of the benefits are in the form of public goods. Researchers often come in with knowledge of what has worked elsewhere and help the government design better programs. They typically also provide technical assistance to governments about good process monitoring. Government partners also gain, through an improved capacity to distinguish different types of evidence, to determine which evidence is best at answering what question, and how best to integrate research evidence into their programs. If the relationship goes well, the government partner will be much keener to work with subsequent research teams and will be much more effective in working with them. Importantly, governments are often in a good position to scale up a program that has been tested if the results are positive. A great example of how researchers working on a question of intense interest to the government can lead to a quick and wide-reaching policy change is the Raskin rice program in Indonesia.

Because the costs to the individual researcher are high, but many of the benefits accrue to the world at large, J-PAL has put significant effort into building up long-term partnerships with governments to make it easier for our researchers to work with them. Typically these partnerships include: discussing general lessons from previous research findings that may be relevant to the local context; capacity building to help civil servants read and incorporate lessons from research; and a demand-driven agenda of research to answer the questions the government most wants answered, and that J-PAL researchers are able to design studies to answer.

Some good examples of these collaborations are EduLab in Peru, which is a joint effort of J-PAL Latin America & Caribbean and IPA Peru; the collaboration J-PAL South Asia has established with the Government of Tamil Nadu; and the partnerships being developed by J-PAL North America as part of their State and Local Innovation Initiative.

Another approach is to provide subsidies and support to researchers who are investing in building relationships with governments. The Government Partnership Initiative at J-PAL does exactly this.

Other organizations, including Innovations for Poverty Action and the International Growth Center (both of which I work with), have similarly invested in building long-term relationships with governments to foster researcher–government collaborations. When doing RCTs or other impact evaluations, researchers at the World Bank and other multilateral development banks also benefit from working within a long-run relationship with governments, which can help with--though they do not solve--the challenges I discussed.

So you want to do an RCT with a government: things you should know

David McKenzie’s blog about the arms race in RCTs raised the concern that there will be a reduction in the number of RCTs with governments and that it will get harder to publish them. I am not going to comment on the publication issue but instead on the pros and cons of doing an RCT with governments and some practical suggestions for those who do want to work with governments.

On the benefit side, governments:

  1. Have substantial resources to invest in large and expensive programs and evaluations;
  2. Cover large populations. When else could you randomize at the subdistrict level and have 1.8 million beneficiaries in an RCT, as in Olken et al. (2014)?;
  3. Collect a lot of data on individuals, such as test scores for children, earnings for adults, and encounters with the criminal justice system. Working with governments can help you get access to these administrative data which can reduce the cost and hassle of running an RCT;
  4. Can run a program in the way it would be scaled by a government;
  5. Are able to manipulate policies in areas other organizations cannot influence, such as how tax inspectors are rewarded (Khan, Khwaja, and Olken 2014) police officers are trained and rewarded (Banerjee et al. 2012); and how firms' emissions into the environment are regulated (Duflo et al. 2012). 

Some examples of RCTs that use these advantages of partnerships with government to good effect are Angrist et al. (2006), who were able to follow up winners and losers of a lottery for vouchers to attend private school in Colombia by linking winners to a centralized college-entry exam seven years after the vouchers were issued. In ongoing work, Bettinger et al. link the same voucher winners and losers to government tax and earnings data, 17 years after the lottery. Muralidharan and Sundararaman (2011) test the impact of teacher-incentive pay in a representative sample of rural schools across the state of Andhra Pradesh, meaning their results are valid across a population of 60 million. Banerjee, Hanna, Cohen, Sumarto, and Olken worked with the Government of Indonesia to test how providing individual ID cards to recipients of government-subsidized rice (which indicated the amount and price of rice they were eligible for) could reduce corruption in the distribution system. The results showed that the cards increased the subsidy received by targeted recipients by 25 percent, so the government scaled up the ID card program, reaching 66 million people. The time from evaluation design to scale-up was about a year.

With these benefits, however, come considerable costs:

  1. Governments can be slow-moving and less able or willing to test out-of-the-box solutions than NGOs.
  2. It may be particularly difficult to run more theory-oriented field experiments with governments. They tend to be less interested in answering an abstract question, the answer to which could inform many policies but would not be scaled up as a specific program.
  3. Governments can also find it harder than NGOs to provide services only to a limited group of needy citizens. Some governments have laws requiring them to treat citizens of equivalent need equally. When the Government of France wanted to test programs using randomized trials, they first had to change the constitution to make this possible
  4. Staff turnover in governments can be high as civil servants are transferred regularly. This makes it even more important to build support at different levels of government: if the RCT has support from the minister but not the bureaucrats, then it is likely to die with the next cabinet reshuffle.
  5. An election can lead to a dramatic change in policy priorities and personnel at the same time. It can also lead to paralysis for a period both before and after an election, even if the program being evaluated has bipartisan support. (An RCT I was involved in collapsed when none of the planned monitoring could take place because a newly elected government froze all nonessential expenditure while they thought through new priorities. In another instance a survey had to be suspended just as it was about to go into the field because of a national exchange rate crunch, which again led to a freeze. Government budget shortfalls and last minute crunches are not confined to developing countries.)
  6. Governments can renege on any agreement with impunity. There is not much a researcher can do when a government decides to fill a shortfall in a program budget with money set aside for, say, the endline.

Many of the strategies for working with partners discussed in my previous blog are just as relevant to working with governments. Government partners are in a powerful position vis-à-vis the researcher, so it is important to listen hard to what they want. They often work within short political timelines, so delivering intermediate products such as baseline reports can be key for keeping them engaged. 

There are also specific actions a researcher can take to help the often bumpy ride of partnering with governments. A more formal approach to partnership may be needed than in the case of working with NGOs. Governments often require a memorandum of understanding that sets out clear expectations for both parties. Discussions may be going well at the practical implementation level, but any final decision—even a relatively small one—is likely to require sign-off from someone senior. It is important to build extra time into the schedule to account for this.

Government procurement rules can also cause considerable delay. For example, if we decided that an intervention needs a leaflet to explain the study to participants, the government may require a competitive bid for the printing of the leaflet, leading to several months delay. Having some independent funding that does not run through the government can be very helpful in easing some of these constraints: a researcher can come in and offer to pay for a leaflet, or for additional monitoring, etc. Independent funding can also help keep the research going if the government faces short-run liquidity constraints.

Being the first to do something might be exciting for an NGO, but can make a government nervous about being exposed to criticism. Thinking through the optics of the experiment (i.e., how it would look on the front page of a newspaper) can help alleviate concern. Another strategy is to bring in an official from another department or country who has worked on an experiment before, preferably of a similar type.  It is much more reassuring for officials to talk to other officials than it is to hear from a researcher.

Policymakers often have a healthy skepticism of researchers who want to provide advice about how to measure or improve a program, especially those coming from another country, state or region. It is important for researchers to prove their relevance and their local knowledge. A mix of humility, a desire to learn from the policymaker, and a lot of homework about local conditions can help. I have seen policymakers visibly relax and start to engage when they hear from a researcher about their on-the-ground experience. A well-placed anecdote about a conversation with a farmer in Kenema or a teacher in Pittsburgh can be critical for building credibility.

The bottom line is that working with governments can be rewarding, but is very hard and takes enormous investment. It is also risky. As such it may be inadvisable for junior researchers who have to finish a PhD on time or get a paper published before a tenure decision to do an RCT with a government. Even senior researchers need to think hard about the commitment, risk, and reward before taking on an RCT with a government.

For more discussion on ways for researchers to make working with governments easier, see my next blog entry.

The role of economics in ethics

Economics doesn’t have a reputation for being a particularly ethical profession, but the new book by William MacAskill might help change that. Many of the concepts laid out in Doing Good Better--such as counterfactuals, diminishing marginal utility, and fat tail distributions--will be familiar to economists. What is unusual is to see these tools used to develop a practical guide on how to live an ethical life. MacAskill doesn’t tell you what choices to make; instead he sets out a simple framework for how to think through decisions like whether to be a vegetarian, what job to take, whether to buy fair trade coffee, and where to donate. He also provides a lot of useful numbers for thinking through these decisions.

As an example, MacAskill discusses the choice of career. We might naively think that we should adopt a career that directly helps people, like being a doctor. But MacAskill urges the reader to think through the counterfactual: what would happen if we did not become a doctor? In many countries the number of doctors is highly regulated. What do we think would happen to the average quality of medical care if we did not become a doctor but another person filled the slot in medical school instead? Are there other careers where our marginal impact might be higher? It’s a difficult question but making a career choice is a big decision that deserves some careful, structured thought.

I like to think I approach ethical decisions reasonably logically, but there were a number of cases where this book made me question what I am doing. For example, I am a vegetarian who eats eggs. MacAskill argues, however, that eating eggs may cause more animal suffering than eating beef. If we are making a commitment such as being a vegetarian, isn’t it worth investigating a bit more thoroughly what the consequences are? (The discussion about vegetarianism is also a good example of how ethical decisions are not zero/one, or right versus wrong, but more on a continuum.) 

I appreciate how Peter Singer, this book, and Effective Altruism have directly taken on the all-too-common view that we have a stronger duty to fix the problems closest to us compared to those of people who live far away. Will MacAskill nicely brings together the concept of diminishing marginal utility and results from happiness research to suggest that $100 in a poor county could generate 100 times more utility than $100 in the US. You can quibble with the exact numbers but the basic idea has to be right.

Daron Acemoglu and Angus Deaton have recently hit out at Effective Altruism in a reply to Peter Singer’s article in the Boston Review. They mainly use their articles to argue for more focus on institutions (Acemoglu) and to attack governmental aid policies that support dictators (Deaton). This book shows how narrow and misguided their view of Effective Altruism is in comparison to the reality. For example, MacAskill discusses the benefits of investing in actions with low probabilities of high rewards, such as efforts to change institutions. (As an aside, if we want to move the discussion on institutions forward we need to go beyond showing they matter to testing practical options for change.)

While Effective Altruism is about a lot more than aid, there is a thought-provoking point on aid. Small pox eradication has saved between 60 and 120 million lives. If it were the only achievement of all aid ever given to developing countries, we would have spent $40,000 for every life saved from aid, making it highly cost-effective (compared, for example, with the FDA's cost-effectiveness threshold of $7.9 million per life saved). Deaton argues that this fails to take into account the cost of aid in propping up regimes who suppress human rights in developing countries. MacAskill and others would clearly want to take into account any negative general equilibrium effects of aid. I agree with those who stress the importance of human rights and democratic freedoms—the poor deserve these as much as the rich do. I have been shocked by the West’s unwillingness to protest the overthrow of democratically elected governments around the world, including in Bangladesh and Thailand.  But it is a big jump to go from caring about democracy to saying that all support to the poor in all developing countries simply props up bad regimes. There are democracies among poor countries and there are better and worse ways to support the poor even in less-than-perfect democracies.

Deaton’s argument that providing succor to the poor in less-than-perfect regimes is dangerous because it provides credibility to these regimes, reminds me vividly of the arguments communists made against social democracy in Europe from Marx in the 1840s to my college days in the 1980s. Pensions, unemployment insurance, public education, and welfare would sap the poor’s willingness to rebel and create regime change and thus should be opposed. I didn’t buy it in college and I don’t buy it now. To be concrete, one of the recommendations in Doing Good Better is GiveDirectly, which gives money directly to poor families in Kenya: a democracy, although far from a perfect one. If $100 is 100 times more valuable to a Kenyan than to an America, I would want pretty strong evidence that this giving made the Kenyan regime less democratic before thinking such giving was a net negative. It seems just as plausible to me that giving a poor Kenyan $100 puts them in a better, rather than worse, position to lobby for improved government.

There is one part of MacAskill's book where I have a different perspective from him: that effective altruists might do more good "earning to give" in a high-paid job than working for a development agency or NGO. I worry that he underestimates the change in preferences someone working in banking may undergo. I also feel that development NGOs and agencies could be more effective if a higher proportion of their staff were quantitative-minded people who carefully think through counterfactuals and trade-offs in the way effective altruists do. In other words, unlike the doctor case, its not clear to me that if effective altruists stop pursuing these types of jobs that these positions will be filled with people who are just as effective.

A fundamental position of Effective Altruism is that we have a moral obligation to not just do good, but to think more carefully about how to do good more effectively. To me, being an Effective Altruist is the logical consequence of being an economist who thinks about effectiveness and wants to be ethical. (In a previous blog I discuss some ways in which Effective Altruists have raised important and interesting technical challenges about some economics methodologies).

In the interests of full disclosure, the first chapter of Doing Good Better has a description of how the recent wave of randomized evaluations in development economics started in which I feature (too prominently).

A movement grows up

Twenty-one years ago this summer, I was fortunate enough to witness the start of a new movement of randomized evaluations that have transformed development economics. (This week, CEGA and IPA celebrated the anniversary in Nairobi.)

I had already met Michael’s family in Kansas but in 1994 he took me to see his other family, with whom he had lived on a small farm in rural Kenya for a year after college. Michael relates the story of how a chance meeting with an old friend who worked for International Child Support (ICS) led to the first RCTs on education in Busia, Kenya, a then very sleepy town on the border with Uganda which has become famous among development economists.

There is something very special about Busia and the ethos of inquiry and partnership that developed and flourished there. Here a craft was developed and honed. As the movement becomes much wider it's worth recording some of the principles that were so successful in Busia.

A deep commitment to craft. A thousand small decisions separate a good RCT from a poor one: Framing the question on the survey exactly right; designing the intervention so that it carefully reflects local needs; capturing data at the right time of day or year; meticulously monitoring enumerators; making it easy for the data to be entered correctly; capturing not just the outcome but all the steps along the way to better understand the outcome. Busia was where many researchers came to develop and learn the intensely practical craft of running a good RCT: Lorenzo Casaburi, Pascaline Dupas, Esther Duflo, David Evans, James Habyarimana, Ted Miguel, Owen Ozier, Jon Robinson, Simone Schaner, Frank Schilbach, Rebecca Thornton, Alix Zwane, and many others all worked there. And here they developed many of the protocols that have become standard in RCTs.

Long-term partnership. Many of the best RCTs have come from long-term partnerships between researchers and NGOs or other local partners. The trust that develops with collaborations over many years allows innovative ideas to be tested, often springing out of the lessons of past failures or partial successes. One RCT builds on the findings of the previous. The relationship between researchers and ICS was the first model for this long-term relationship. (Several years after going to Busia I also saw Michael and Abhijit Banerjee forge the start of a second important relationship with Seva Mandir. See Neelima Khetan, former chief executive of Seva Mandir, discuss this summer like no other here.)

Thorough understanding of context. An important ethos of the researchers working in Busia was the importance of understanding the local context. OK, not everyone could spend a year living in a local family, sleeping on cow dung in a thatched hut and teaching in the local school--but this example set the tone. Many PhD students and research assistants lived with families in town and learned Swahili during their long stays in Busia. Scott Guggenheim, an anthropologist who has worked closely with Ben Olken and others on RCTs in Indonesia criticizes economists' reluctance to talk about the detailed qualitative work they do in preparation for an RCT: its an integral part of how the best economists work, but if you don’t talk about it people will think you can fly in and fly out and do a good RCT.

Building high-quality research infrastructure. Why did so many PhD students and junior researchers come through this backwater town? Yes, for the collaboration with other researchers, but also to take advantage of the research infrastructure that was built--first as the evaluation group at ICS which then migrated to become IPA Kenya. It is hard enough for PhD students to do an RCT as their thesis, but if they had to find a way to hire Kenyan enumerators legally and find people to enter the data, etc., etc., it would be a lot harder. The lower entry costs were critical to the movement taking off. Again the model was copied in other places: first in India, then in IPA offices and J-PAL regional centers across the world. It has been wonderful to see some of the Kenyans who helped build this infrastructure be recognized. This summer, Michael and I (with other Busia alumni) were with Carol Nekesa (who was part of the team who moved from ICS to IPA), to celebrate her graduation from the midcareer master's at the Harvard Kennedy School.

What can a researcher do to foster a good partnership with an implementing organization?

In a previous blog post I discussed what a researcher should look for in an implementing partner with whom they want to do an RCT. But what does an implementer want in a research partner, and how can a researcher make him- or herself a better partner?

I)  Answer questions the partner wants answered

Start by listening. A researcher will go into a partnership with ideas about what they want to test, but it is important to understand what the implementer wants to learn from the partnership. Work together to come up with a design that answers key questions from both parties. Sometimes this doesn’t require another arm to be added to the study, but rather some good monitoring data or quantitative descriptive data of conditions in the population to be collected.

II)  Be flexible about the evaluation design

The research design you have in your head initially is almost never the design that ends up being implemented. It is critical to respond flexibly to the practical concerns raised by the implementer. One of the main reasons that randomized evaluations have taken off in development in the last twenty years is because of the range of tools that have been developed to introduce an element of randomization in various ways. It is important to go into a partnership with all those tools in mind and use the flexibility they provide to achieve a rigorous study that also takes into account the implementer’s concerns.

A common concern implementers have about randomization is that they will lose the ability to choose the individuals or communities they think are most likely to benefit from the intervention; for example, a training program may want to enroll students that have some education, but not too much. These concerns are relatively easy to deal with: agree to drop individuals or communities that don’t fit the criteria as long as there are enough remaining to randomize some into treatment and some into control. This may require expanding the geographic scope of the program. Randomization in the bubble can be a useful design in these cases.

Randomized phase-in designs are also useful for addressing implementer concerns, although they come with important downsides (Glennerster and Takavarasha 2013 detail the pros and cons of different randomization techniques).

There can and should be limits to this flexibility. If an implementing organization repeatedly turns down research designs carefully tailored to address concerns they've raised previously, at some point the researcher needs to assess whether the implementer wants the evaluation to succeed. This is a very hard judgment to make and is often clouded by an unwillingness to walk away from an idea that the researcher has invested a lot of time in. In this situation, the key question to focus on is whether the implementer is also trying to overcome the practical obstacles to the evaluation. If not, then it probably makes sense to walk away and let go of the sunk costs. Better to walk now than be forced to later, when even more time and money have been invested.

III)  Share expertise

Many partners are interested in learning more about impact evaluation as part of the process of engaging on an evaluation. Take the time to explain the impact evaluation techniques to them and involve them in every step of the process. Offer to do training on randomized evaluations or run a workshop on Stata for the organization’s staff. Having an organization-wide understanding of RCTs also has important benefits for research. In Bangladesh, employees of the Bangladesh Development Society were so well-versed in the logic of RCTs that they intervened when they noticed girls attending program activities from surrounding communities. They explained to the communities (unprompted) that this could contaminate the control group and asked that only local girls attend. 

Researchers often have considerable expertise in specific elements of program design, including monitoring systems and incentives, and knowledge of potential funding sources--all of which can be highly valued by implementers. Many researchers end up providing technical assistance on monitoring systems and program design that go well beyond the program being evaluated. The good will earned is invaluable when difficult issues arise later in the evaluation process.

IV)  Provide intermediate outputs

While implementing partners benefit from the final evaluation results, the timescales of project funding and reporting are very different from academic timelines. Often an implementing organization will need to seek funding to keep the program going before the endline is in place and several years before the final evaluation report is complete. It is therefore very helpful to provide intermediate outputs. These can include: a write-up of a needs assessment in which the researcher draws on existing data and/or qualitative work that is used in project design; a description of similar programs elsewhere; a baseline report that provides detailed descriptive data of the conditions at the start of the program; or regular reports from any ongoing monitoring of project implementation the researchers are doing.  Usually researchers collect these data but don’t write them up until the final paper. Being conscious of the implementer’s different timescale and getting these products out early can make them much more useful.

V)  Have a local presence and keep in frequent contact

Partnerships take work and face time. A field experiment is not something you set up, walk away from, and come back to some time later to discover the results. Stuff will happen, especially in developing countries: strikes, funding cuts, price rises, Ebola outbreaks. It is important to have a member of the research team on the ground to help the implementing partner think through how to deal with minor and major shocks in a way that fits the needs of both the implementer and the researcher. Even in the middle of multiyear projects I have weekly calls with my research assistants, who either sit in the offices of the implementer or visit them frequently. We always have plenty to talk about. I also visit the research site once and often twice a year. Common issues that come up during the evaluation are lower-than-expected program take-up, higher-than-expected costs of running the program, uneven implementation quality, and new ideas on how to improve the program. 

Investment pays off

The benefits of investing in long-term partnerships are high. Some of the most interesting RCTs have come out of long-term partnerships between researchers and implementers that cover multiple evaluations. Once a level of trust in the researcher and familiarity with RCTs has been established, implementers are often more willing to randomize different elements of their program and try new approaches to their programs. Indeed, they often become the drivers of new ideas to test.  

How can we improve the accuracy with which evidence and statistics are reported?

The Well Column of The New York Times recently suggested that too much exercise could be bad for your health based on the results of a study, the flaws of which Justin Wolfers eloquently explained in a subsequent issue of the Times. While this was a particularly embarrassing case of journalists giving more weight to a study than it deserved, it is hardly unique. We regularly hear or read that food stuff X (coffee, butter, red wine) is bad for our health, only to read some months or years later that a new study shows the same food is in fact good for us. This cycle of excitement and dissolution, whether it is about a new way to prevent cancer, reduce poverty, or improve children’s IQ is not healthy for the public’s faith in science or journalism.

Recently the Department of Communication at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (under the leadership of Gonzalo Saavedra, who opened the session) and J-PAL LAC brought together some of the leading journalists in Chile to discuss how journalists can improve their presentation of evidence and statistics. Paula Escobar-Chavarría moderated the session. My talk (slides available here) focused on the need for journalists, when reporting on a study, fact, or claim, to clearly distinguish between four different types of evidence: descriptive evidence; process evidence, correlations, and causal evidence. All could be newsworthy. Francisco Gallego, in response to a question about whether correlations should never be considered newsworthy, gave the example of how important it would be to report that wages were lower for women than men even if there was no way to identify that the relationship is caused by discrimination. The mistake would be to report a correlation in a way that suggests causation.



I suggested the following checklist of questions journalists can ask when reporting on a claim:

1.     What type of claim is this: descriptive, process, correlation, or causal impact?

2.     Does the type of evidence match the claim? Is the claim causal but the evidence only a correlation?

3.     If the claim is descriptive, is the sample large and representative?

4.     If the claim is causal (i.e., about impact), what is the counterfactual: How do we know what would have happened otherwise?

5.     Are there reasons to think that those who participated in the program/ate a certain type of food/went to a type of school are different in other ways from those who did not?

How could a journalist make a story come alive and yet be true to the evidence? Telling individual stories was a powerful communication tool. Rather than interviewing a few (unrepresentative) people and drawing wider conclusions from those interviews, journalists could illustrate the findings of a representative and well-identified study by seeking out individuals whose story reflected the study’s findings.

The precise use of words is something journalists care about. Everyday words like impact, led to, cause, or the result of imply causal evidence. They should only be used when we know what would have happened otherwise. When reporting on a study that describes a correlation, it can also be helpful to draw attention to this fact and discuss why the correlation may not be causal. (I spent a frustrating thirty minutes stuck in traffic listening to an--admittedly hour-long--NPR show on the higher-than-average rate of suicides among those taking antidepressants without once hearing the moderator ask, “Could this correlation be due to the fact that those on antidepressants are depressed and thus more prone to suicide?” The side benefit of this episode was that my six-year-old son in the back seat got an impromptu lecture on the difference between correlation and causation, similar to that which I received from my mother at about the same age).

Journalists have an important role in holding politicians, NGOs, and others to account for the claims they make. Rather than take these claims at face value, journalists are in a perfect position to probe and ask: How do you know that your policy caused that change?

As experts in communication, journalists also have an important role in communicating the results of studies that may be written in complex language. But communicating a complex argument both clearly and accurately usually requires investing time in understanding the study and it may require asking for help in how to express the findings, either from the authors or from other experts--something that journalists are often reluctant to do. (I realize that journalists consider it against their standards to show a draft article to the interviewee or study author, but isn’t there a higher duty to accuracy?)

One of the participants at the event commented that journalists can be reluctant to say “we don’t know” even though sometimes that is the only accurate reading of the evidence.  But despite the many challenges to improving the accuracy with which evidence and statistics are reported in the press, I came away energized and optimistic. Throughout the discussion, journalists openly discussed the profession’s (and often their own individual) failings, happily engaged on difficult questions, and said they would welcome more advice and input to improve their reporting. This group was a very select sample of the most serious journalists in Chile but I was left to wonder whether there would be the same appetite to engage on these issues in other countries. Are US journalists too proud to admit they need help?

The importance of keeping your head (and your data) in a crisis

On Friday The New York Times published our op-ed (written jointly with Tavneet Suri and Herbert M’cleod) on how implausible claims and misleading presentation of information has made the Ebola crisis worse than it needed to be. Much of the op-ed is based on our report joint with the the World Bank. In our survey we find little evidence of impacts on agriculture, but lots of evidence that household enterprises in urban areas have been hit.

Given our section on agriculture was cut from the op-ed, It is worth explaining in a bit more detail. On September 5th the FAO reported that more than 40 percent of farms in Kailahun were abandoned and raised alarm that planting might be disrupted because of a lack of planting materials. Some news outlets reported that 40 percent of all farms across the country had been abandoned. Ninety percent of farmers in Sierra Leone grow rice, and during September the rice crop is maturing in the fields (having been planted before the outbreak started). What, in this context, does “abandoned” mean? Farmers were not weeding their crop for fear of infection? And why was the FAO worried about lack of planting materials in September, given planting would not take place till late spring/early summer 2015? In our November survey many farmers reported that they had not yet harvested their rice crop (normally harvest starts in late September and early October, although it extends through December). The main reason given was that the rains were continuing. Virtually no one mentioned Ebola. The FAO report was influential in shaping the debate on economic impacts. It was mentioned in the Ministry of Finance and World Bank assessments of the economic impact of Ebola.

It may well be that the reported harvest is lower this year than before. Unfortunately we will probably never know exactly what the impact of Ebola was on agricultural output as it is hard, even in the best of times, to estimate agricultural production in a country where the vast majority of agricultural output is consumed by those who produce it. Our previous, survey- based estimates have been at sharp odds with official figures. But what seems clear is that household nonfarm businesses have been hit harder than agricultural production, yet the emphasis has been on the latter. Is that lack of attention because there is no ministry or agency that has the nonagricultural informal sector as their priority?

For those interested in data on Sierra Leone, the International Growth Center has a useful page of links to nationally representative surveys.



The economics of Ebola: some new facts

For much of the last two months Tavneet Suri and I have been working with the Sierra Leone team at Innovations for Poverty Action, the World Bank, and Statistics Sierra Leone on a major household survey to get some facts about how households are faring during the Ebola crisis. The results have just been released.

Given the transport disruptions and the threat of infection, the survey was conducted by cell phone, which is not ideal in a country as poor as Sierra Leone. However, this survey used as its base those who had been interviewed as part of the Labor Force Survey (LFS) undertaken in July/August 2014. Thus we had up-to-date phone numbers for 2,764 people (66 percent of the LFS sample). We also had data that for most people was pre-Ebola. Thanks to the hard work of IPA and SSL enumerators, 70 percent of these were reached during the middle of November (meaning 46 percent of the overall LFS sample was reached). Coverage was good in urban areas but weaker in rural areas. The rural results therefore need to be treated with some caution, although the panel nature of the data helps and the numbers reached in rural areas still far exceeds most data collection exercises in Sierra Leone through this period. The response rate is much higher than the World Bank survey in Liberia.

We also released results from the last two rounds of our survey of markets in Sierra Leone, which provides evidence that is very consistent with the results from the household survey.

Of course we don’t have any good identification to distinguish the impacts of the Ebola crisis from other shocks that have hit the economy (like the unseasonably heavy rains or the fall in the price of iron ore). All we show are changes since August. However, it is important to remember that the Sierra Leone economy was growing strongly before the onset of the crisis. Overall, it looks as though the urban informal sector has suffered most since August. This is perhaps unsurprising as this is the sector that would bear the brunt of restrictions on transport, markets, restaurants, and bars. They are also the sector that is most vulnerable to cutbacks in discretionary expenditure which comes with uncertainty.

The percentage of household heads who reported working in the last week in urban areas fell from 75 percent to 67 percent. The percentage working stayed unchanged in rural areas. Hours worked, for those in work, fell everywhere except Freetown.

Revenues from nonfarm household enterprises fell by 40 percent. While 4 percent of nonfarm household enterprises were reported as not operating in August, this rose to 12 percent in November. A third of households reported (in November) that Ebola was the reason that the HH enterprise was not operating.

Roughly half of households still have rice that is yet to be harvested but the main reason given is that it is still raining. Only three households mentioned Ebola as a reason rice remained unharvested.  There were reports of labor shortages but these were mainly at the household level (14 percent of respondents), while only 6 percent reported lack of labor in the community as a constraint. Over half of households reported hiring outside labor despite worries that fear of infection would reduce this practice.

Just over 70 percent of households reported taking some action to combat food insecurity in the week prior to the survey. As we do not have similar data at this point in the season it is hard to say how much of this is due to Ebola.

Our markets data continues to show that food prices are similar to those seen in previous years. The one exception is that imported rice prices have fallen much more than is typical in cordoned areas. Our market price data are consistent with prices reported by households in the cell phone survey.

Our market trader data looks somewhat more encouraging than in previous rounds. This is partly because we have changed our base year from 2012 to 2011 (the previous round of the market survey stopped in October 2012). There was also an uptick in rice traders as the delayed harvest came in. Traders of palm oil and processed cassava (gari) are still below previous years, although the gap closed somewhat in December.  

Practical steps you can take to reduce sexism in economics

The Economist’s list of influential economists, and the lack of women on it, has sparked an interesting conversation about sexism in economics.  Miles Kimball and an anonymous coauthor listed a number of practical hurdles faced by women in academic economics. Just last month The New Yorker published an article on Samantha Power that included descriptions of how she had to deal with sexist banter in the UN, something horribly familiar to many women working in economics policy jobs. If this was not depressing enough, Sendhil Mullainathan’s piece on racial discrimination showed how unconscious bias creeps into our decisions even when we think we are not discriminating.

Long-term biases and stereotypes are not going to be easy to change, but here are a few practical things you can do to help combat sexism in economics both in the academic and policy world:

1. When writing recommendation letters, if you draw comparisons to others, do so across genders (and across race).

It is common in recommendation letters and tenure letters to draw comparisons to other, more senior people in the same field. This PhD student reminds me of X, this junior colleague is the best in their field since Y, or has the breadth of interest of Z. In the policy world the comparisons are not as formal but it is still common to say, “This person reminds me of X” as shorthand to convey the type and the quality of the person being considered. But whether in academia or in the policy world, these comparisons are nearly always done within gender. A junior male academic is compared to a male senior academic, but not to a female one, and vice versa. I don’t think this is a conscious decision but it has insidious results, especially if there are few senior women that a junior woman can be compared to. There are now, thankfully, some women stars in academic and policy economics, but not every woman can be the next Susan Athey, Esther Duflo, or Janet Yellen. By unconsciously drawing comparisons only within gender it is as if we are forcing ourselves to paint pictures of women in black and white while using the full-color palette to paint pictures of men. To do justice to female candidates we need to be able to use a full pallet of comparisons. So next time you write a recommendation letter, or want to describe someone with a quick shorthand by saying they are similar to someone else, make a conscious decision to dismantle this restrictive norm and choose a comparator of a different gender. If you want to say a junior male colleague is rigorous and thorough, compare them to a senior woman with those characteristics and vice versa. I don’t have enough of a sample to say if there is a similar hesitancy to make comparisons across race and country of origin but I worry that there might be. It makes no sense that junior French economists are frequently compared to Tirole or Piketty when their research may be more like that of a US colleague.  

2. Stop and ask yourself, “Would I say that if I were talking to a man?”

Several years ago at Davos a woman from a large foundation came up to Esther Duflo and me and told us in a very matter of fact way that we couldn’t possibly have founded J-PAL because we were too young. I wondered if she would have said that to us if we were two men in our mid-30s and early 40s. During a review of a research project, a committee discussed if the (female) researcher should be discouraged from proceeding with her study (which involved interviewing terrorists) given the danger. Fortunately these are rare examples of bizarre behavior. But how common is it for the work of a female junior faculty who has coauthored with a senior faculty to have that work discounted based on the assumption that the senior author was the real brains behind the project? If you ever find yourself in that position, ask yourself—would I discount this work equally if the junior faculty were a man?    

3. Don’t draw attention to a woman’s minority status.

At my London comprehensive we had an old-fashioned physics department and the boys and girls had to line up on different sides of the classroom door: 28 boys on one side and two girls on the other. Throughout the lesson our teacher would constantly refer to the class as “gentlemen” and then add “and of course, our two ladies.” Despite loving science I dropped physics at 16. This is an extreme version of a pretty common phenomenon in which women who do science and economics are constantly reminded of the fact that they are unusual. At the UK Treasury the etiquette was that the most senior officials entered the Minister’s office first.  Yet several times the senior official would usher me in first as the only woman, even though I was the most junior official there. On mission at the IMF a colleague would make a big show of interrupting the waiter as he took our order and told him to take my order first, as the only woman. Trust me, when you are working 18-hour days for two weeks in close quarters with a small team, the last thing you want anyone to do is remind everyone of the fact that you are the only woman.

4. Try not to be jealous if a woman occasionally gets the spotlight.

There has been a lot of discussion recently of biases in who the press quotes and pays attention to. Occasionally, as if struck by guilt for past mistakes, the press will suddenly do a feature on a particular woman. These splashy features can be a double-edged sword for the featured woman as they can create resentment amongst her colleagues. But it is worth remembering that the woman herself almost certainly did not seek or precipitate the feature. The erratic nature of the press is hardly her fault and neither male nor female academics could be expected to decline being featured because they thought someone else was more worthy. This resentment is not only precipitated by the erratic spotlight of the press. Someone may be searching for a woman to sit on a panel or look for a woman to fill a very visible policy job in an attempt to signal that the organization is not as male-dominated as it might appear. I know that occasionally IMF colleagues of mine thought it was unfair that I would be seated next to the Governor of the Central Bank as the only woman at the table, and Treasury colleagues resented the fact that women often got coveted jobs working closely with Ministers. (If they knew the banter we had to put up with in those positions they would probably have been less jealous.) But if you find yourself feeling annoyed or jealous on the occasions when the spotlight falls on a woman, try not to blame the woman.   

What makes a good implementing partner?

Unlike most academic economic research, running randomized control trials (RCTs) often involves intense collaboration between researchers and the organization or individuals who are implementing the intervention that is being evaluated. This collaboration can be the best thing about working on a study--or the worst. What should a researcher look for in an implementer? In a later post I will discuss what a researcher can do to strengthen the relationship and provide value to the implementing organization.

i)               Sufficient scale

A first, and easy, filter for a good implementing partner is whether an organization is working at a big enough scale to be able to generate a sample size that will provide enough power for the experiment. How big is sufficient depends on the level at which the randomization is going to take place, as well as the number of different variants of the program that are going to be compared and the outcome of interest. Thus a lot of detailed discussion takes place about what a potential evaluation would look like before it is possible to say if an evaluation is feasible. However, it is surprising how many potential partnerships can be ruled out quite early on because the implementer is just not working at a big enough scale to make a decent evaluation possible.

ii)              Flexibility

A willingness to try different versions of the program and adapt elements in response to discussions with researchers makes an attractive implementing partner.  As discussed above, we can learn a lot by testing different parts of a program together and separately or by comparing different approaches to the same problem against each other. The best partnerships are where researcher and implementer work together to find the most interesting versions of the program to test.

iii)            Technical programmatic expertise, yet representative

There is a risk of testing a program run by an inexperienced implementer, finding a null result, and generating the response, “Of course there was no impact, you worked with an inexperienced implementer.” The researcher also has less to learn from an inexperienced implementer, and thus the partnership risks becoming one-sided. At the other end of the spectrum, we may not want to work with a "gold-plated" implementer unless we are doing a “proof-of-concept” evaluation of the type discussed above. There are two risks here: that the program is so expensive that it will never be cost-effective even if it is effective; and that it relies on unusual and difficult-to-reproduce, noncash resources from a few highly dynamic mentors that would be hard to replace. An implementer working at a very big scale is unlikely to run a gold-plated program and has already shown the program can be scaled. It is also possible to work with a smaller implementer that closely follows a model used by others.

iv)             Local expertise and reputation

Implementers who have been working with a population for many years have in-depth knowledge of local formal and informal institutions, population characteristics, and geography that is invaluable in designing and implementing an evaluation. What messages are likely to resonate with this population? What does success look like and how can we measure it? When I started working in Sierra Leone I spent a long time traveling round the country with staff from Statistics Sierra Leone, Care, and the Institutional Reform and Capacity Building Project. I learned that it was socially acceptable to ask about the bloody civil war that had just ended but that asking about marital disputes could get us thrown out of the village. From Tajan Rogers l learned that every rural (and some urban) communities in Sierra Leone come together for “road brushing,” where they clear encroaching vegetation from the dirt road that links their community to the next and even build the common palm-log bridges over rivers. How often this activity took place and what proportion of the community took part became our preferred measure of collective action and has been used in many papers since.

Just as importantly, an implementer who has been working locally has a reputation in local communities that it would take a researcher years to build. This reputation can be vital. We learn little about the impact of a program if suspicion around the implementer means that few take up the program.

Researchers need to understand how valuable this reputational capital is to the implementer. What may seem like reluctance to try new ideas may be a fully justified caution to put their hard-won reputation on the line.

v)              Low staff turnover

There are many difficulties in working with governments and donor organizations, but perhaps the hardest to overcome is high staff turnover. As we have emphasized, evaluation is a partnership of trust and understanding and this takes time to build. All too often a key government or donor counterpart will move on just as an evaluation is reaching a critical stage. Their successor may be less open to evaluation, want to test a different question, be against randomization, or just uninterested. The only way a researcher can protect the evaluation is to try and build relationships at many levels throughout the implementing organization so that the loss of one champion does not doom the entire project. But this may not be sufficient. One of the many advantages of working with local NGOs is that they tend to have greater stability in their staffing.

vi)             Desire to know the truth and willingness to invest in uncovering it

The most important quality of an implementing partner is the desire to know the true impact of an intervention and a willingness to devote time and energy to helping the researcher uncover the truth. Many organizations start off enthusiastic about the idea of an evaluation but at some point realize it is possible a rigorous evaluation may conclude their program if it does not have a positive impact. At this point, two reactions are possible: a sudden realization of all the practical constraints that will make an evaluation impossible, or a renewed commitment to learn.  

In Running Randomized Evaluations (Glennerster and Tavarakasha 2013), we quote Rukmini Banerji of Pratham at the launch of an evaluation of Pratham's flagship “Read India” program:

"[The researchers] may find that it doesn't work. But if it does not work, we need to know that. We owe it to ourselves and the communities we work with not to waste their and our time and resources on a program that does not help children learn. If we find that this program isn't working, we will go and develop something that will."

It is not just that an unwilling partner can throw obstacles in the path of an effective evaluation. An implementing partner needs to be an active and committed member of the evaluation team. There will inevitably be problems that come up during the evaluation process which the implementer will have to help solve, often at a financial or time cost to themselves. The baseline may run behind schedule and implementation will need to be delayed till it is complete; transport costs of the program will be higher as implementation communities will be further apart than they otherwise would be to allow for comparison groups; roll-out plans must be set further in advance than normal to allow for the evaluation; selection criteria must be written down and followed scrupulously, reducing discretion of local staff; and some promising program areas must be left for the comparison group. Partners will only put up with these problems and actively help solve them if they fully appreciate the benefits of the evaluation being high quality and they understand why these restrictions are necessary.

This commitment to the evaluation needs to be at many levels of the organization. If the headquarters in Delhi want to do an impact evaluation but the local staff don’t, it is not advisable for HQ to force the evaluation through because it is the staff at the local level who will need to be deeply involved in working through the details with the researcher. Similarly, if the local staff are committed but the HQ is not, there will be no support for the extra time and cost the implementer will need to participate in the study. Worst of all is when a funder forces an unwilling implementer to do an RCT run by a researcher. Being involved in a scenario of this kind will suck up months of a researcher's time trying to come up with evaluation designs that the implementer will in turn find some way to object to.

If this level of commitment to discovering the unvarnished truth sounds a little optimistic, there are practical ways to make an impact evaluation less threatening to a partner. An implementer who does many types of programs has less at stake from an impact evaluation of one of their programs than an organization that has a single signature program. Another option is to test different variants of a program rather than the impact of the program itself. For example, testing the pros and cons of weekly versus monthly repayment of microcredit loans (Field and Pande 2008) is less threatening than testing the impact of microcredit loans. In some cases researchers have started relationships with implementers by testing a question that is less threatening (although potentially less interesting). As the partnership has built up trust, the implementing partner has opened up more and more of their portfolio to rigorous testing.

Where does a research assistant job lead?

J-PAL and our many partner organizations are in the process of a massive recruitment effort to fill 100+ positions all over the world. The most common position is as a research associate either helping to run a randomized evaluation or analyzing the data from an RCT (often in the US). Many only stay in these positions for a couple of years: they are stepping stones. Where do they lead?

In an RA position you learn a lot about data: how to write a good survey, how to supervise a team of enumerators, how to clean data and (in a few positons) how to analyze it. This highly practical training is a great entry point and complement to the theoretical training in an economics or political science PhD, and many of my RAs have gone on to top PhD programs at Harvard, MIT, UC Berkeley, etc. Dan Keniston, for example, was one of my first RAs and is now an assistant professor at Yale.

But a practical training in how to collect high quality data and run rigorous impact evaluations is useful well beyond academics. There are now enough organizations doing high-quality impact evaluations that it is possible to build a career moving up and between these organizations. For example, Mike Duthie, an RA of mine in Bangladesh, went on to become Country Director for Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) in Sierra Leone and now works for Social Impact managing projects all over the world. Buddy Shah and Andrew Fraker worked as RAs for me in India and (with others) launched their own impact evaluation NGO, which is expanding rapidly. Tricia Gonwa worked with me in the J-PAL Cambridge office, then was Country Director for IPA in Liberia, and now works for the Gender Lab at the World Bank.

It is also possible to have a career within J-PAL and IPA: Iman Sen was an RA on my project in Bangladesh and then in Cambridge, and is now Assistant Director of Research at J-PAL South Asia. Shobhini Mukerji worked as an RA in J-PAL South Asia and is now Executive Director there.

Many jobs offer RAs from Europe and the US the opportunity to live and work in a developing country. When I first wanted to get into development work I was faced with a catch-22: I could not get a job in development without having worked in a developing country, but I could not get that experience without already having it. For many, the chance to become an integral part of another society is one of the most rewarding aspects of the job. There are few other jobs where you have the chance to work in such a diverse and close knit team. Some RAs go on to build businesses based on these experiences. I have already mentioned IDInsight. Bureh belts is another example. It was launched by Grant Bridgman (South Africa), Dan Heyman (US), and Fatoma Momoh (Sierra Leone) .

If you'd like to apply for a research associate position at J-PAL, click here for more information.

The implications of the Ebola outbreak on markets as of November 2014

While the media and many agencies have focused on the concern that the Ebola outbreak may lead to rises in food prices, our latest results suggest the dangers lie elsewhere. Our latest round of market surveys took place in October, shortly after all Sierra Leoneans were asked to stay at home for two days. Since our last report the geographic burden of the disease has shifted considerably and new cordon restrictions have been imposed in Port Loko, Moyamba, and Bombali.

Figure 1: Geographic Spread of Confirmed Cases and Cordon Restrictions, September 18 and October 23

The main results of our survey are:

1. Prices of basic food commodities at markets are not significantly higher in October than they were at this time in previous years, nor are they higher on average in cordon areas.

2. The number of traders selling basic food items has continued to fall in all districts. In Kailahun and Kenema (the first districts to be cordoned) there are 69 percent fewer domestic rice traders than in 2012, while the decline in newly cordoned areas is 29 percent. This suggests the major economic threat is not food prices but income, especially for those who produce cash crops and are dependent on selling their product to traders.

Figure 2: Number of Domestic Rice Traders per Market

3. There are outliers where prices are much higher, and there are more of these outliers than in normal years.

4. There are an increasing number of markets that are closed. In most of these cases traders report they are selling food from their homes. However, it will be important to monitor food security at the household level to ensure that food (at reasonable prices) is reaching households, especially in remote locations.

5. Very preliminary data, however, suggests a new risk to food security or at least a potential delay in the rice harvests. Rainfall in September was much higher than it usually is at this time of year, but it did begin to fall back down in October. This may negatively impact the rice harvest, or at the very least delay the rice harvest.

Figure 3: Average Rainfall by Month in Sierra Leone and Liberia

a. sierra leone

b. liberia

Other data collection efforts are attempting to capture the decline in economic activity more generally as well as utilization of health care for non-Ebola-related health issues. We will report on the results of this work as soon as they are available.

The full report is available here.


Planning for a post-Ebola West Africa: Part 1: The economy

While the Ebola outbreak rages, and the immediate need is to control the spread of the disease and help those infected, I am increasingly being asked to comment on how we can plan to rebuild post-Ebola. In this first blog I provide some thoughts about rebuilding the economy.

Planning under uncertainty

We still have very little idea when the outbreak will come to an end or what the state of the economy will be at that point. There are promising signs that the infection rate has slowed in the districts that were first affected (Kailahun and Kenema), but infections in Freetown and surrounding areas are rising sharply and it is much harder to contain the outbreak in dense urban slums (as the situation in Liberia has shown). Planning is also a challenge because one of the many casualties of the outbreak has been frequent and reliable data. With transport restricted and systems overburdened it is hard to know exactly what is going on. A number of groups have been setting up phone surveys to try and monitor the situation. I am involved in a survey of markets, a household survey, and hope to have a firm survey soon.  These, however, take time to set up and are likely to be less accurate and representative than in-person surveys. We also need to recognize that individuals, journalists, and agencies often have an incentive to tell a particular story, so we need to try and sort out fact from anecdote.

Restoring confidence is the key to economic recovery

The largest economic consequences of the outbreak are likely to be indirect, spreading far beyond those who fall sick from the disease and their immediate family. The largest impacts will come because purchases and investments are delayed in these uncertain times and because people avoid activity that puts them at risk of infection. A good example of this is our markets report for September, which shows the number of rice traders down by 40 percent in cordon areas compared to the same time in 2012.

Number of Traders in Domestic Rice, 2012 vs. 2014

Source: Glennerster and Suri, 2014.

Source: Glennerster and Suri, 2014.

The most important thing the government can do to boost the economy is to help restore confidence by ensuring that they provide reliable, consistent messaging about the disease and the economy. As Herbert M’cleod discusses in his Huffington Post contribution, the Ebola outbreak uncovered, among other things, a lack of trust in government that had tragic consequences. Building trust will take increased transparency and accountability and will not be a short-term project.

Donors can help the economic recovery by ensuring that trade and travel restrictions are kept to the minimum necessary for control of the disease and that governments do not give into domestic hysteria (and impose damaging and senseless trade and travel restrictions). Donors can also help the affected countries maintain stable exchange rates. We know how to do this: It does not require foreign support on the ground (just foreign money), and it is essential for maintaining confidence.  There will be a temptation post-Ebola to announce big new projects to kick-start the economy, but big promises followed by delays will breed cynicism. Realistic commitments delivered reliably and transparently will rebuild trust and confidence more effectively. Simply paying government bills (for wages and goods purchased) on time would help ease the credit crunch faced by individuals and suppliers.

Distinguishing between output delays and output losses

Much of the discussion of the economic costs of Ebola has failed to draw a distinction between lost output and delayed output. Until recently Ebola had not severely impacted mining revenues in Sierra Leone but this is likely just a matter of time. But if/when mining is disrupted there will mainly be a delay in output, not a long-run loss. Instead of being sold this year, the minerals will be extracted and sold in subsequent years. The government will lose revenues in the meantime but (like the exchange rate) this can easily be compensated for by donors. Employees of firms who have to suspend operations will also be impacted. For mining this is a relatively small number of people. In contrast, if the cocoa harvest rots because traders can’t get into cordoned areas to collect it, this is a real cost that cannot be made up for. The costs are much more diffuse and compensating farmers is therefore a much harder exercise. This means that when we seek to limit economic impacts now, and when we think about restoring the economy post-Ebola, the most immediate focus should be on addressing output losses--not output delays.

In my next blog I will give some thoughts on rebuilding the health-care system post-Ebola.

The economic impact of Ebola: Monitoring the impact of potential transport disruptions on traders, food availability, and market prices

The first results of our market-tracking survey in response to the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone are in, and the full report can be found on the IGC website. On the whole the results are encouraging, although I should stress that this survey only looks at one particular (though immediate) concern: namely, the impact of the cordon and potential reductions in activity of traders on the distribution of basic food. We have other work underway which will attempt to quantify some of the other main concerns, such as the extent to which general economic activity is depressed by the uncertainty and fear surrounding the outbreak.

This work is being done jointly with Tavneet Suri and Herbert M’cleod. The IPA Sierra Leone office--and the amazing local research staff there--did a heroic job completing this survey in such a short time to their normal high standards.

The summary findings from the report are below. This morning I also did an interview on CNBC Africa discussing this study. You can watch it here.


August is the peak of the lean season, when imported rice is transported throughout the country to fulfill food needs. The government cordon in Kenema and Kailahun has the potential to interrupt this flow of food. While the government and its partners have been bringing food into the districts impacted by the cordon, it is critical to monitor whether this food is reaching rural markets. In addition, if informal traders reduce their activity for fear of infection, prices of food could rise even in areas with lower infection rates.

We therefore worked with Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) to collect data on food availability, prices, and number of traders in 152 markets throughout Sierra Leone during the week of August 19–27, 2014. We were able to compare responses to those collected in August 2012. In addition, we compare the cordon districts (Kailahun and Kenema) to the noncordoned districts to look at whether the cordon is impacting food availability and prices.

We find that:

  • The number of traders of imported rice is lower in 2014 than 2012, but stable in the cordon districts of Kailahun and Kenema compared to the other districts. This suggests that the fear of infection and the cordon itself have not disrupted trade greatly. The number of traders of domestic rice is much higher relative to 2012, but this is only the case in the noncordoned districts, not in Kailahun and Kenema. However, note that only 9 percent of markets reported local rice harvests having already started in the area. This lower relative level of local rice traders in cordoned districts will need to be watched carefully as local rice harvests start to pick up.
  • The government’s efforts to keep food flowing into the cordon areas seem to be proving largely effective. Prices of imported rice are similar in Kenema to the rest of the country but slightly higher in markets in Kailahun. The majority of markets showing price spikes are in Kailahun. This suggests additional rice could be brought into Kailahun and that it is important to ensure good distribution throughout this remote district.
  • Palm oil prices are similar in Kailahun and Kenema to other parts of the country. Normally palm oil is cheaper in these districts than elsewhere, so this represents a relative increase compared to 2012.
  • The rice harvest is a month away and good rains this year mean it should be a good harvest. This may relieve the need to transport rice into the cordoned areas over time. However, we are in unknown territory so it will be important to continue to monitor the situation.
  • The cocoa harvest has started in Kailhun and Kenema and it will be important to ensure that growers of cash crops can get their produce out of cordoned areas.

Figure 1: Location of markets for monitoring survey, 2014

Figure 2: Prices of imported rice (Leones/kg) in 2012 and 2014 in cordoned and noncordoned districts

Figure 3: Kernel density of price of imported rice (Leones/kg)

Understanding the economic impact of Ebola and informing the response

When I left Sierra Leone nearly three weeks ago it was already evident that there would be important economic fallout from the Ebola outbreak. The disease had stayed relatively contained in two districts (Kailahun, which borders Guinea, and neighboring Kenema where the patients were brought for medical care) for the first few months but reports that it was spreading beyond those districts were leading to widespread fear. Those who could do so restricted their travel, as well as contact outside immediate family and colleagues. Programs, investments, and hiring decisions were being postponed as people waited to see how the situation evolved. Increasingly, Ebola, and the response to it, was taking up more and more of the time and energy of government officials. On my last day in Freetown the president declared a state of emergency that, in its current version, imposes a cordon sanitaire on Kailahun and Kenema and forbids the opening of bars and restaurants at night and the use of okadas (motorcycle taxis) after 7 p.m.

In an atmosphere rife with fear and rumors, good information is extremely valuable. This was evident in the many requests I received for copies of Innovation for Poverty Action’s (IPA) training on how to protect against the disease--but this is equally true as we move to combatting the economic fallout. The highly disbursed population and disruptions to transport routes make it even harder to acquire good information, yet this will be essential for the government to plan an effective, targeted response.

For this reason, the International Growth Centre (IGC) and IPA are activating a real-time monitoring system (using phone-based surveys) to understand and help the government and its development partners respond to the economic consequences of the outbreak. The first step will be to monitor markets throughout the country for signs of price spikes arising from transport disruptions. (Lorenzo Casaburi, Tavneet Suri, and I have a paper showing just how poorly integrated rural markets are in Sierra Leone at the best of times. The market survey designed for this paper and its national equivalent that we did for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food Security will form the basis for the initial step in the monitoring process.) We hope to have initial results out next week.

The next step will be to monitor the decline in economic activity in urban areas. Again, this will be done with a phone survey as sending enumerators out across the country has, like many other economic activities in Sierra Leone, been suspended.

A detailed statement on the IGC assessment and response to the economic consequences, along with a press release based on this statement, can be found here.

Where economists can learn from philosophers and effective altruism

Nearly thirty years since I started my degree in economics and philosophy at Oxford I was back at a conference ("Good Done Right") that brought together philosophers and economists to discuss “Effective Altruism,” a growing movement that says we have a duty not just to be altruistic but to use our giving to best effect. Even when I ended up disagreeing with the arguments of the philosophers it was refreshing to be challenged by those working in a discipline with different methodologies but similar objectives and who are well versed in the work of economists doing RCTs of poverty programs.  There were several areas where I was convinced we should reconsider how we do our work.

I set out here some key lessons from my two days with the philosophers. The most practical were about how to do cost-effectiveness and cost-benefit analysis, although the challenge of how we think about discount rates has wider implications. There was also a fascinating talk from the New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar about the origins of the current cultural hostility to altruists (particularly those who care about people far away and attempt to think rationally about how to help them).

Economists are too queasy about making trade-offs between people: transfers revisited

We economists like to think of ourselves as being part of a rational discipline and I am used to being attacked for being too ready to put numbers on concepts like empowerment. Last week I was pressed to go further in putting numbers on benefits. I was talking about whether or not to include transfers as a cost in cost-effectiveness analysis. (As I have discussed before the reason to exclude transfers from costs is that they are not a cost to society:  the cost to the funder is offset by the monetary benefit to the recipient. The reason not to net them out is that in cost-effectiveness we focus on one particular benefit, ignoring all others. Why should monetary benefits be the exception?) But why, someone asked, would we think the benefit to the recipient was equal to the cost to the funder given that there is diminishing marginal utility of income? Shouldn’t we include an estimate for how much more valuable the transfer was to the recipient than to the funder? I was persuaded that our analysis too often fails to take diminishing marginal utility seriously when we consider programs with distributional consequences. This is not just an issue for cost-effectiveness and cost-benefit analysis. When we compare mean outcomes in treatment and comparison groups we too rarely look at how the treatment impacts the distribution of outcomes.

A countervailing argument I had not focused on before is that if a donor is particularly effective at giving a transfer, it has a cost as it reduces the amount that donor can give to other effective causes. To paraphrase Toby Ord, “If we think the poor can use the money more wisely than we can, then we should just give all our money to them rather than spend time figuring out how to give it effectively.” If we think we are better than average at giving away funds then we have to think of the opportunity cost of the transfers we make, in terms of other programs forgone with a tight budget constraint. In other words, not treating transfers as a cost assumes no budget constraint. This may be appropriate for governments (who at the margin can borrow or tax more and we only need to take into account the distortionary cost of taxation) but it is not always appropriate for private donors.

With these balancing interests, transfers might have positive weight (because they go to people with higher marginal utility of income) or negative weight (because of the opportunity cost of the funds they transfer), but it’s lazy to assume these two exactly offset each other, as we tend to do.

Sometimes assessing marginal impact bakes in existing inefficiencies and inequalities

Jeremy Lauer from the WHO presented the case for the WHO-CHOICE model, which for 17 regions of the world constructs the most cost-effective portfolio of health investments (for a given resource envelope). He argued persuasively that assessing the marginal cost-effectiveness of additional interventions meant that some of the biggest inefficiencies in health systems were never challenged and never reformed: we only assessed whether to add new services without asking if we should stop some existing services.  During strategic planning we would need to take into account short-run constraints and existing investments, but if we only ever looked at the short-run marginal trade-off we would miss some of the biggest opportunities for improving allocative efficiency.

Are we are handling beneficiary costs incorrectly?

I argued that it is important to take into account the costs programs impose on beneficiaries: such as copayments, donating labor, or taking valuable time to attend program meetings. Because cost-effectiveness is a ratio with two different units—the benefits are measured in units like years of schooling while the costs are in money (dollars)—we traditionally add the beneficiary costs to the monetary side of the ratio. But because we are dealing with a ratio it is not the same thing to add a cost to the denominator as it is to subtract a benefit from the numerator. The difference between adding to costs or subtracting from benefits is much larger when a program is highly cost-effective. Conceptually we should have all the items (positive or negative) related to recipients on one side of the ratio and all those relating to funders on the other. We don’t do this because we don’t know how to translate our recipient costs (copays and time costs) into our benefit units (additional years of schooling or improvements in test scores)--but the current solution is a bit ad hoc and distorting our results.

Moral trade

Toby Ord made a fascinating presentation on the potential gains from moral trade when people have different moral values. Imagine Anthony cares deeply about animal rights and is a vegetarian, while also thinking poverty in developing countries is a problem. Beatrice cares passionately about poverty in developing countries and less so about animal rights. Giving up meat would not be a major cost to her; it’s just not a priority. Anthony is already a vegetarian and would like Beatrice to become one. She agrees to become a vegetarian if Anthony agrees to give a donation to help relieve international poverty. There are substantial (moral) gains to trade from this transaction: both individuals do better in achieving their moral objectives for a given cost to themselves than they would if they acted alone. There a many challenges in attempting to set up a market for moral trade of this sought (and Toby discussed many of them in his talk). When we discuss the concept of “complete markets” in economics, a market for moral trade should be part of it.

Cultural opposition to rational altruism

Most of those seeking to promote RCTs as a way to improve the effectiveness of poverty programs have run into the reaction that thinking carefully about the most efficient way to address poverty and explicitly discussing trade-offs is in some way cold-hearted. While not philosophy, MacFarquhar gave a fascinating presentation of some of the cultural and historical bases for this attitude. She traced how the concept of “codependency,” in which family members who sought to help addicts were thought to want to perpetuate addition because it gave them a sense of being needed and in control, was applied beyond family members to those seeking to help those in need. Anyone who sought out a career of helping others, she argued, had come under suspicion. She also pointed out how few altruistic characters there were in modern novels. Those who appeared at first to be altruistic turned out to be corrupt or hypercritical.

*Organizations that promote effective altruism include: Giving What We Can, GiveWell, and 80,000 Hours. In the interests of full disclosure, I am a member of Giving What We Can.