How to include a randomized controlled trial in your project proposal

A researcher doing field work in Brazil. Photo by: Neil Palmer / CIAT for Center for International Forestry Research / CC BY-NC-ND

Randomized controlled trials, or RCTs, can be an effective way of determining the true impact of interventions. It is a scientific approach to information gathering that includes a group receiving an intervention and a control group that does not. Randomization within the trial means there is minimal bias in the selection of participants, to allow true insights to be generated.

For development projects, they are not always a viable option. But when they are, they need to be carefully planned and prepared to ensure they can provide high quality results that effectively communicate why an intervention does or doesn't work — improving aid and development programs for the future.

The value of RCTs

Dr Tessa Hillgrove, a senior research adviser with The Fred Hollows Foundation, explained to Devex that in knowing “what works” in development practice, there are a range of sources of evidence that can be used. As part of this, RCTs are considered the highest form of evidence — the “gold standard” of understanding what works in development practice.

“By using random assignment methods for individuals or clusters of organizations or people by geographical location — more commonly in development research — RCTs allow us to say whether a particular program really makes a difference,” she explained. “For example, does [mobile] health technology encourage more patients to seek follow-up care after surgery, or would they have sought care anyway? Does a special curriculum improve learning outcomes for children above and beyond standard practice?”

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About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.