WP 2011-16 Randomization and Its Discontents

Download Paper

Published in 2011 in Journal of African Economies, Volume 20, Issue 4.

AUTHOR: Glenn W. Harrison

ABSTRACT. Randomised control trials have become popular tools in development economics. The key idea is to exploit deliberate or naturally occurring randomisation of treatments in order to make causal inferences about ‘what works’ to promote some development objective. The expression‘what works’ is crucial: the emphasis is on evidence-based conclusions that will have immediate policy use. No room for good intentions, wishful thinking, ideological biases, Washington Consensus, cost–benefit calculations or even parametric stochastic assumptions. A valuable byproduct has been the identification of questions that other methods might answer, or that subsequent randomised evaluations might address. An unattractive byproduct has been the dumbing down of econometric practice, the omission of any cost–benefit analytics and an arrogance towards other methodologies. Fortunately, the latter are gratuitous, and the former point towards important complementarities in methods to help address knotty, substantive issues in development economics.