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> Posted by Alex Counts, Founder, Grameen Foundation

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I have written extensively about how I believe practitioners and researchers can work most effectively together in reducing poverty, often using some of the missed opportunities for this kind of collaboration in microfinance as a point of departure. In the process, quite a few people have come to believe that I am opposed to randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Perhaps part of the issue is the tendency of many people, especially those in the media, to reduce a point of view to whether it is “for” or “against” something else.

In fact, my position has always been that RCTs have an important place in improving development policy and practice. I have, however, been uneasy with the way they have been promoted – dare I say “over-hyped”? – as a “gold standard” and also with the misleading assumptions and comparisons some of its proponents routinely make. The limitations of RCTs are frequently minimized, as are the potential contributions of other research methodologies.

In the case of microcredit, the way RCT studies have been digested, interpreted, and acted upon has done considerable and unnecessary damage to policy and practice, even as it has increased our knowledge of some important issues. No one group bears responsibility for this damage, but too many continue to ignore or minimize it.

Enter Angus Deaton

Like many others, I have struggled at times to articulate the source of my unease. Now comes powerful commentary on RCTs and related topics by 2015 Nobel laureate economist Professor Angus Deaton in his interview with Tim Ogden of NYU’s Financial Access Initiative.

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> Posted by Alex Counts, Founder, Grameen Foundation

On Sunday, August 23, as I was enjoying some of the final days of summer visiting friends in New Hampshire, I noticed that I had been tagged in a tweet by Dean Karlan, the founder and president of Innovations for Poverty Action.  He provided a link to an article about FINCA that included extensive quotes from its CEO, Rupert Scofield.  He asked Rupert if he really believed microfinance could reduce terrorism, and asked me what I thought (“whatcha think?” was the precise formulation of his question).  He tweeted again on Monday, asking whether I was “still going to stand by [my] claim that no microcredit leaders make grandiose and overselling impact claims?”

First of all, I have never said that no microcredit leaders have ever exaggerated impact claims.  I believe that those exaggerated claims have been rare and atypical, especially in recent years.  In other words, the tendency for practitioners and advocates to make exaggerated claims not backed up by data has itself been quite exaggerated.

But I don’t think Twitter is the best medium for exploring such topics.  So I was grateful when the Center for Financial Inclusion agreed to publish this response to Dean’s public queries of me, in which I could address some related issues about microfinance advocacy and research.  (This post builds upon some of the observations I made in reviewing Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel’s impressive but flawed book, More Than Good Intentions.)

Regarding the article Dean tweeted about, I am supportive of Rupert’s statements and encourage others to read it and come to their own conclusions.  (Having been the public face of an international humanitarian organization for 18 years, I also realize that journalists sometimes focus on a very small part of what someone says in an interview, often on those things that are potentially the most controversial.)  For the most part, Rupert comments on specific microfinance clients he and the journalist met and on his past experiences and how they shaped his view of microfinance.  It’s impossible to challenge any of those observations and recollections.  They are statements of personal experience and opinion.

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> Posted by Bobbi Gray, Research Director, Freedom from Hunger

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While recent research indicates that access to and use of microcredit alone is not transformative for the average client served (see “Where Credit Is Due”), there has been very little discussion about the types of indicators being used to measure “transformation” in the ongoing debates. In fact, it seems that we all have accepted the general findings that microcredit has only had modest impacts on, along with other indicators of poverty and well-being, education, health, and social capital because the randomized controlled trials (RCTs) have said so. There needs to be greater thought and debate about the choices of indicators used to support these conclusions.

Freedom from Hunger over the past 20-plus years has integrated health with microfinance and helped build a body of knowledge indicating that microfinance plus health services can enhance health outcomes. In an ongoing partnership with the Microcredit Summit Campaign, supported by Johnson and Johnson, we have pilot-tested a series of health indicators that financial service providers (FSPs) can use to track client health outcomes. This pilot test was built on years of experience of evaluating health outcomes with our FSP partners, as well as on similar experiences of developing common tracking indicators in the health sector. We created a list of criteria to assess the types of indicators we felt would be meaningful to track—for individuals with and without health services – which included dimensions of feasibility, usability, and reliability. Initial results have been shared in several webinars with SEEP and the Social Performance Task Force.

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> Posted by V. McIntyre, Freelance Writer for the Harvard Kennedy School

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Often, we hold out hope that innovation will happen through the great leap forward, the stroke of luck, the miracle cure – and when one candidate fails, we go off in search of another.

There is justifiable concern that this yes-or-no approach hampers international development. A recent article in the New Republic listed “big ideas” in international development that failed – not because they were bad, but because they were big. The article describes a $15 million-plus project to install thousands of water pumps attached to merry-go-rounds in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as Jeffrey Sachs’s Millennium Villages which sought to overhaul entire villages by building housing, schools, clinics, roads, and other key infrastructure. In these and the article’s other cases, with expectations high and money and attention flowing in, the projects sank, often because they outgrew the scale at which they had proven to work. Yet some of a project’s apparent lack of success may simply come down to the measurement you’re using. Many of the world’s most successful development efforts – deworming campaigns, for example – only improve the average life in tiny increments.

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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

In his book, The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee tells the history of the fight against cancer. It’s a grand saga involving scientists, doctors, patients, and politics, all wielding their best tools to find better treatments and ultimately a cure. And of course, the tale is not over: the scourge continues, though much progress has been made, and an increasing number of bright spots are appearing.

As I read, I see parallels between the evolution of that medical “war” and the struggle against poverty waged by the international development community, or at least the part of that struggle I’m part of, the struggle to give people financial tools to better their lives. The more I read, the more I see, until in each corner of the cancer story I find parallels with our own sector and its searches for solutions.

In the early 20th Century, surgeons began to treat breast cancer with radical mastectomies in which not only breast but also lymph nodes and many of the neighboring chest muscles were taken. The more radical, the greater the chances of success, went the theory. By mid-century, chemotherapies appeared. They represented another radical approach in which patients were brought to the brink of death as chemicals attacked cancerous and normal cells alike. In both cases, Mukherjee argues, brute force substituted for the absence of a deep understanding of the causes and behavior of cancer. The medical profession simply applied the tools at hand, raising the intensity as high as patients could tolerate. The tools sometimes cured the patient, but more often postponed the inevitable recurrence, a partial success. According to Mukherjee, the surgeons and chemotherapists who wielded these instruments were so convinced of their efficacy that they closed their minds to alternatives (including each other’s solutions), scoffed at attempts to measure success through rigorous trials, and downplayed the suffering imposed on actual patients.

Maybe you’re already seeing parallels…

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> Posted by the Microfinance CEO Working Group

The following post was originally published on the Microfinance CEO Working Group blog.

The American Economic Journal has published an issue dedicated to six new studies measuring the impact of microcredit. Through a series of randomized control trials (RCTs), researchers have identified some of the effects of expanded access to microcredit on borrowers and communities in Bosnia, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, Mongolia, and Morocco.

The researchers reported evidence of positive impacts of microcredit on occupational choice, business scale, consumption choice, female decision power, and improved risk management, but did not report clear evidence of reduction in poverty or substantial improvements in living standards. “These results,” conclude the authors, “suggest that although microcredit may not be transformative in the sense of lifting people or communities out of poverty, it does afford people more freedom in their choices… and the possibility of being self-reliant.”

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With under 40 days to go, the 17th Microcredit Summit is rapidly approaching. CFI’s Josh Goldstein will be speaking during a plenary session focused on new innovations for microfinance and other financial inclusion interventions to more effectively reach the excluded. With the theme “Generation Next: Innovations in Microfinance,” this should be a great opportunity to explore what is on the horizon to achieve full financial inclusion. In this post, Josh discusses industry context surrounding the Summit, and what he hopes he and those in attendance will be able to take away from the event.

I am a sometime skeptic about the proliferation of microfinance conferences, but the upcoming Microcredit Summit in Merida, Mexico seems particularly important and timely. Personally, I am very excited about it. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I should add that I will be a speaker, and of course piqued vanity can certainly lead to bias, but I don’t suspect this is the case here.)

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog, except where otherwise noted, are those of the authors and guest bloggers and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Financial Inclusion or its affiliates.