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How can you tell if a policy is working? Run a trial

Policy, evidence, experiments, RCT

Politicians are ignorant about trials, and they’re weird about evidence. It doesn’t need to be this way. In international development work, resources are tight and people know that good intentions aren’t enough: in fact, good intentions can sometimes do harm. We need to know what works.

In two new books published this month – More Than Good Intentions and Poor Economics – four academics describe amazing work testing interventions around the world with proper, randomised trials. This is something we’ve bizarrely failed to do at home.

Is business training useful? There’s a randomised trial on it in Peru. What about business mentors? In Mexico, they ran a randomised trial. Now think about all the different initiatives in the UK to support small businesses, or to help people find work. Do they work? You can have no clear idea.

Randomised trials are our best way to find out if something works: by randomly assigning participants to one intervention or another, and measuring the outcome we’re interested in, we exclude all alternative explanations for any difference between the two groups. If you don’t know which of two reasonable interventions is best, and you want to find out, a trial will tell you.

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