SEATTLE — Randomized control trials are emerging as a unique poverty-fighting tool. By providing useful evidence about interventions in health, education, and international development, this unique strategy helps to shed light on the most important areas of focus in the worldwide poverty battle.
Over the past decade, the use of randomized controlled experiments has gained significant popularity in the testing of public policies. By bringing hard data into the governmental sphere, randomized trials help to ensure that governments are investing their resources into the most efficient, effectual programs.
By approaching the poverty problem from a scientific standpoint, problem-solvers are able to maximize the potential of their time, energy, and use of resources for developmental programs.
Because poverty is such a deeply rooted, complicated problem, the collection of factually based evidence is of utmost importance in order to draw up practical solutions.
RCTs have been used to test the effectiveness of social programs since at least the 1960s. The modern era for RCTs was not kicked off until 1997; however, when one of the most famous and influential RCTs changed public policy in Mexico.
President Ernesto Zedillo came to office amidst a massive economic crisis. He quickly assigned economist Santiago Levy to devise a program that would help poor people. Levy designed a system that would provide cash payments to poor families if they met certain requirements, like visiting health clinics and keeping their kids in school.
As fate would have it, Levy was provided with a natural control group for this social experiment. Since the government would be rolling out its payment program in stages, Levy could collect data on families in villages included in the initial roll-out, and compare it with data from villages that had not yet reached this stage.
Levy’s cross-examination of data revealed significant success of the program, known as PROGRESA. The data showed that visitation to health clinics was 60% higher in participating communities than it was in the control group. The data helped to strengthen support for the program and to legitimize the work it was doing.
Today, in the Indian state of Haryana, a similar set of RCTs is being conducted on impoverished people. In 70 local health clinics, a series of widespread trials are testing whether rewards can boost the pervasively low immunization rates for poor children in the region.
Scientists randomly assigned clinics in seven districts with the lowest immunization rates to either give gifts following child vaccinations or not. Although results are not expected until next year, smaller-scale experiments suggest that the incentives have a good chance of working.
This is just one example of the utilization of RCTs to combat the social consequences of poverty. Targets range from education programs to health and safety, to income building and employment. The evidence provided by these trials is of critical importance to worldwide development.
Looking ahead to the establishment of post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, Randomized Control Trials should be recognized as a valuable evidence-collecting tool. In the fight against poverty, it is essential to take note of what has worked, and what has failed to bring results. RCTs provide a practical means of achieving this.
– Sarah Bernard