When RCTs aren't a good idea

A survey in Sierra Leone. When should implementing organizations conduct randomized control trials? Photo by: Joseph King / CC BY-NC-ND

As pressure increases on foreign aid groups to showcase the impact of their work, randomized control trials have become more common. And yet, evaluating impact using such control groups remains controversial — and it isn’t always a smart idea.

“Implementing organizations are increasingly being asked or being pushed by donors to measure impact, and often it doesn’t make sense for them to do so,” said Annie Duflo, executive director of Innovations for Poverty Action, one of the major nonprofits that conducts RCTs to measure the impact of development programs.

IPA will publish a toolkit later this year to help organizations decipher when they should — and shouldn’t — conduct RCTs. The “Goldilocks Project,” as it’s called, is meant to help institutions decide how to create a monitoring and evaluation plan that’s not too small or large for a program but “just right.”

The growing focus on measuring impact is a good thing, said Delia Welsh, senior director of IPA’s M&E initiative. Sometimes, though, resources are misallocated.

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About the author

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    Claire Luke

    Claire is a journalist passionate about all things development, with a particular interest in labor, having worked previously for the Indonesia-based International Labor Organization. She has experience reporting in Cambodia, Nicaragua and Burma, and is happy to be immersed in the action of D.C. Claire is a master's candidate in development economics at the George Washington Elliott School of International Affairs and received her bachelor's degree in political philosophy from the College of the Holy Cross.