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August 13, 2015

Scientific Tests May Show Which Global Aid Efforts Work Best

An article in the journal Nature explores the growing movement of economics researchers conducting randomized controlled trials to evaluate global development programs. The researchers, who have come to be known as "randomistas," seek to generate data to identify the most effective efforts and, in turn, guide the allocation of resources.

The trials have been used to track the success of everything from programs to increase immunization rates in poor countries to an anti-pollution program for industrial plants in India. “There are hundreds and hundreds of randomized trials going on, and 10 years ago that just wasn't the case,” says Yale economist Dean Karlan.

Critics say that by evaluating specific aid programs, the researchers run the risk of losing sight of other important factors, including macroeconomic issues such as energy and infrastructure that are impossible to randomize. Another risk in conducting the trials is that positive effects from one trial may not translate when the program is scaled up, when it's implemented in another area, or when less monitoring occurs.