Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Development economics and devil worshipping

As I’ve explained, the organization I work with does research on development projects.  Specifically, we do “randomized control trials” (RCTs) in which we randomly assign a group of people a certain treatment (say discounted bednets, for example) and another group we simply monitor as a comparison group.  If the treatment group improves more than the control, we can attribute this to the intervention. 
We randomly assign people because if we only look at what happen to people who seek out an intervention on their own compared to those who don't, any positive results could be because the seekers are likely a more motivated group or have more resources – not because the treatment actually had any real effect.  So, through RTCs, we’re getting around the whole “selection bias” issue you may remember from any social science class you took in college.  If RCT are good enough for the pharmaceutical industry, why not development economists?
OK.  So, this all makes a massive amount of common sense so far.  The findings about the effectiveness of poverty alleviation programs we get from RCTs are convincing to policy-makers, the media, academics, consultants, and people simply interested in how to make the world a better place. 
You know who all of this is not all that convincing to?  The people we are actually studying. 
And here’s why:  Let’s say you are giving out free school uniforms to see what effect that will have on school attendance.  You give the uniform to ½ of the kids randomly selected in a village, and monitor the results.  It’s a good idea in the experimental sense, but tell that to the kid who’s passed over for a uniform and who watches their relatively more well off neighbor get one for free. 
The idea that you would make these decisions “randomly,” and not based on need or merit, rightly makes no sense at all to many of the recipients, despite your explanations about the long term benefits of research and computer-generated decisions.   Add to that an only fair suspicion outside intervention in a post-colonial country and layer on a cultural belief in witchcraft and you have a combustible situation.
Just last week I had to go out to the field to meet with yet another family who, puzzled by our practices, had accused our NGO of devil worshipping.  Turns out, their neighbors -- those in the control group and passed over for our intervention -- who were spreading rumors about IPA being buddies with Beelzebub. 

These rumors are deftly put to rest by our very talented program manager who mixes humor and common sense in his meetings with our detractors.  But, rumors of this kind are enough of an issue that we recently held meetings with all the chiefs and elders in all the areas we work to explain again who we are and what we’re doing giving away things in such a random manner in their area.  
These explanations always include a greater good argument. If we can find that an intervention is effective and we can convince policy-makers to do something about it, your whole village, and maybe even the whole country will benefit.  So bear with us and please don’t ask for something if you’re in the control group, no matter how deserving you think you are. 
The best example we have of this is the deworming program.  Years ago, IPA did a study that showed that giving deworming pills to school children, many of whom have untreated parasites, increased school attendance 25% and was by far the cheapest way to do so.  So convincing was this study, that it prompted a national program treating over 3.5 million children. 
Still, it’s hard to convince people who are worried about sending their kids to school next week that in several years time if we can collect convincing enough evidence and persuade the right people, their participation could lead to a massive expansion of a worthwhile intervention.  If I was in their shoes I’m not sure I’d be so convinced.  Maybe devil worshipping would sound just as plausible. 
Meeting with area chiefs and elders

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