Measuring the effect of aid on people’s lives can be difficult, and may never be perfect – but we believe that it can be done, and has been done, both rigorously and practically. Examples can be found on three sites devoted to conducting and/or promoting rigorous evaluation of social programs: Poverty Action Lab, Innovators for Poverty Action, and the Coalition for Evidence-based Policy.
These sites focus on examining and promoting particular sorts of programs (both in policy and charity), rather than on recommendations for donors; we’re working on determining how much of their information can be used to help with a donation decision. As it stands, though, all three provide good and plentiful examples of of how evaluations can be performed that are practical, rigorous, and ultimately capable of advancing our knowledge of what is likely to work. If you know of more sources of such evaluations, please share.
Both focus explicitly on conducting randomized controlled trials – studies that, in a nutshell, incorporate a “lottery” aspect into choosing a program’s clients, and compare those who were randomly chosen to participate to those who were randomly chosen not to. Differences between the two groups can often be attributed with reasonable confidence to the program itself, without many of the concerns over bias that can cloud the results of other kinds of studies.
Both of these organizations make their publications freely available, directly from their website. The rigor and availability of these studies makes it possible for a casual user to learn a great deal about what is likely to improve people’s lives in the developing world (for example, J-PAL provides a good deal of evidence for the positive potential of deworming programs).
We’ve known about the above resources for a while, but only recently learned of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, which has collected an impressive set of information on what works in developed-world causes such as child care, education, and employment. Like the resources above, this website focuses on studies using a randomized controlled trial approach.
Many of these studies provide direct evidence of particular charities’ effectiveness, and some of the others are useful in setting a general approach (for example, two of the studies they list – which we found through other methods – are cited in our earlier writeup on early childhood care, and influenced the way we think about this issue).
We plan to look closely at the studies on this website; we believe it has provided a valuable service in collecting some of the more rigorous evidence on what works, and that we’ll be able to use it to learn a great deal about how to accomplish as much good as possible with charitable donations. We’ll be sharing our developing thoughts as we go through its materials.