The GiveWell Blog

Rigorous research on aid

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.

Developing world

The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab and Innovations for Poverty Action are both devoted to researching interventions aimed at alleviating developing-world poverty.

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.


  • Holden, I see you’re out of the penalty box. Hard to believe the board banned you from the Internet. Welcome back.

  • Yeah, welcome back!

    Hope you are going back to your 2 posts a week schedule.

  • michael vassar on February 6, 2008 at 10:53 am said:

    Of course, a really rigorous study should also take into account externalities. For that, casually at least, it seems that Jeffrey Sachs’ “Millenium Village” projects are an example of fully controlled experiments, as one doesn’t expect large externalities from charity beyond a local scale unless a village starts exporting on a large scale and global level production increases are very likely to be beneficial anyway.

  • Norma on March 22, 2008 at 6:28 pm said:

    We know this: aid doesn’t produce wealth and it is wealth that brings people out of poverty.

  • Thompson on January 15, 2009 at 3:28 pm said:

    An interesting rating I just recently learned about is the Gini index. In essence it is an attempt to measure a country’s gap between the wealthy and poor and the United States has one of the highest indexed numbers in the world. This mean my country of the United States has one of the largest gaps between income class out there. It goes to show you that finding and studying effective charities and poverty relieve programs, such as this work does, is vital even in countries deemed higher up in the economic food chain.

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