Journal Article

The Power and Pitfalls of Experiments in Development Economics: Some Non-random Reflections

Christopher B. Barrett and Michael R. Carter

in Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy

Published on behalf of Agricultural and Applied Economics Association

Volume 32, issue 4, pages 515-548
Published in print December 2010 | ISSN: 2040-5790
Published online December 2010 | e-ISSN: 2040-5804 | DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.1093/aepp/ppq023
The Power and Pitfalls of Experiments in Development Economics: Some Non-random Reflections

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  • Technological Change; Research and Development
  • General Economics
  • History of Economic Thought
  • Economic Development

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Impact evaluation based on randomized controlled trials (RCTs) offers a powerful tool that has fundamentally reshaped development economics by offering novel solutions to long-standing problems of weak causal identification. Nonetheless, RCTs suffer important and underappreciated pitfalls, some of which are intrinsic to the method when applied to economic problems, others that are the result of methodological boosterism. Among the pitfalls are ethical dilemmas, uncontrollable treatments that result in a ‘faux exogeneity,’ distortion of the research agenda, and a tendency to estimate interventions' abstract efficacy rather than their effectiveness in practice. We illustrate these points through the literature on smallholder capital access and productivity growth. Ultimately, we argue for a methodological pluralism that recognizes all identification strategies' limitations.

Keywords: Ethics; evaluation; identification; randomized controlled trials; A10; B00; O10; O30

Journal Article.  15605 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Technological Change; Research and Development ; General Economics ; History of Economic Thought ; Economic Development

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