November 8, 2019

The Nobel Prize in Economics: Evidence and Power

Our Officer for Learning and Evaluation Julia Bailey writes about why the winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics may matter for feminist movements.

Esther Duflo (left), Michael Kremer and Abhijit Banerjee (right) applied techniques from the medical sciences to research on poverty | Credit: Eric Fougere/VIP Images/Corbis/Getty, Jon Chase/Harvard University, Saumya Khandelwal/Hindustan Times/Getty

The youngest woman in history recently won the Nobel prize for economics, along with two men. They received the award for using experimental economics that draw on randomized control trials (RCT) to evaluate the impact of poverty alleviation programmes. RCTs target interventions, like cash transfers to women or skills training for youth, to a randomly selected group to see if they yield specific outcomes by comparing results to a control group. Within the evaluation world, randomized control trials (RCTs) are considered the gold standard for evaluating development programmes.

The prize to the three economists signals a shift in power towards evidence-building that feminists need to be aware of. RCTs are powerful: they show the causal impact of a development programme and they influence how programmes and policies are designed and implemented.

How do we test the impact of social movements?

I’ve worked with economists who specialise in running these experiments. I tackled questions about social problems with them as a qualitative researcher with a radically different approach to understanding the world. I addressed questions through participatory methodologies that focused on capturing subjective and collective experiences, while my colleagues designed experiments and analysed large scale data sets. We nevertheless shared the same view that individuals and institutions should not decide, based on their assumptions alone, on policies that affect millions of people. Assumptions, after all, are influenced by personal and political biases. Evidence is needed.

But how do we test the impact of social movements? The historical record shows the impact that feminist social movements have had on laws and policies worldwide. New gains from decades-long struggles continue to highlight their successes. Understanding how feminist movements impact the world during short-term funding cycles, comparable to a development programme, is more challenging. At Mama Cash, we work towards long-term, structural changes through three, connected strategies that cannot be evaluated through a RCT.

Feminist funders need to think creatively, critically and politically about how we evaluate our work.

The economists I’ve worked with understand the limitations with RCTs. To quote my former colleague, ‘RCTs are not the panacea that answers all the questions in the world.’ But they are gaining power and focus from policy-makers. This why informed and public debates about RCTs are so important.

Critics of RCTs raise questions about ethics and epistemological limitations of these evaluations, while enthusiasts show how they challenge assumptions made about the world’s poor that have guided policy-makers for too long, leading to negative results. Whatever side of the debate you stand by, what’s clear is that feminist funders need to think creatively, critically and politically about how we evaluate our work supporting social movements to learn more about the results of our efforts, but also to contribute to debates about evaluations, evidence and policy making, like the ones happening now about RCTs.

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