OMG –Respecting Evidence!

There’s the way things are supposed to work, and then there’s the way stuff actually works.

At my age, you sort of get resigned to the general cussedness of the real world….People mean well, but gee–so if an organization has a theory that didn’t exactly work out, it’s pretty incentivized to put a positive spin on it.

That being a fairly typical reaction to products or programs that didn’t do what their creators had hoped they would do, I was stunned–and excited–to read Vox article about a nonprofit that just came out and said “Well, I guess we were wrong.”

Last week, a major international development charity did something remarkable: It admitted that one of its programs didn’t seem to work.

No Lean Season is an innovative program that was created to help poor families in rural Bangladesh during the period between planting and harvesting (typically September to November). During that period, there are no jobs and no income, and families go hungry. By some estimates, at least 300 millionof the rural poor may be affected by seasonal poverty.

No Lean Season aimed to solve that by giving small subsidies to workers so they could migrate to urban areas, where there are job opportunities, for the months before the harvest. In small trials, it worked great. A $20 subsidy was enough to convince people to take the leap. They found jobs in the city, sent money home, returned for the harvest season, and made the trip again in subsequent years, even without another subsidy.

So Evidence Action, the nonprofit that funded the pilot programs of No Lean Season, invested big in scaling it up. In 2016, it had run the program in 82 villages; in 2017, it offered it in 699. No Lean Season made GiveWell’s list of top charities.

Evidence Action wanted more data to assess the program’s effectiveness, so it participated in a rigorous randomized controlled trial (RCT) — the gold standardfor effectiveness research for interventions like these — of the program’s benefits at scale.

Last week, the results from the study finally came in — and they were disappointing. In a blog post, Evidence Action wrote: “An RCT-at-scale found that the [No Lean Season] program did not have the desired impact on inducing migration, and consequently did not increase income or consumption.”

Why was this admission such a big deal? As the Vox article notes, it is exceptionally rare for a charity to agree to participate in a research project, to discover that its program as implemented doesn’t work, and then to actually publicize those results in a major announcement to donors.

It would have been easy, on multiple levels, for Evidence Action to do otherwise. It could have ignored or contested the results of the RCT; the research would still be published, but it would attract a lot less attention and publicity. Or it could have dismissed the failure as unrepresentative — there were unusual floods in Bangladesh in 2017, it could argue, which might have caused the program failures. Or it could have put a more positive spin on the results. After all, while the RCT was discouraging, it wasn’t devastating — there was, in fact, a small increase in migration.

Evidence Actiondid the opposite. “Consistent with our organizational values, we are putting ‘evidence first,’ and using the 2017 results to make significant program improvements and pivots,” the group wrote. “We are continuing to rigorously test to see if program improvements have generated the desired impacts, with results emerging in 2019. We have agreed with GiveWell that No Lean Season should not be a top charity in 2018. Until we assess these results, we will not be seeking additional funding for No Lean Season.”

Honesty. Respect for evidence. Respect for one’s donors.

This, of course, is the way things are supposed to work. This is why intellectually honest research is so important–to gather and consider evidence, and use that evidence to shape further efforts. To learn from reality, and to apply what has been learned in order to inform what we do going forward.

Empirical research. Honest evaluation of the results. Learning from our mistakes.

What a concept…..


The Younger Generation

Last night, I attended a community forum sponsored by SPEA students of John Clark. John is well-known in Indianapolis–he has long been active as a public intellectual and sponsor of the website Provocate. His enthusiasm for global-local connections has clearly motivated his students.

The subject of discussion was: can Indianapolis become a “humanitarian hub”? The venue was the Athenaeum, and the room was filled with an interesting mix of Indianapolis’ residents. There were old folks like me (and a couple even older!), but mostly, attendees were in their twenties and thirties–and it soon became obvious that most of them were already deeply involved in humanitarian and nonprofit enterprises. Worried about Haiti? The experience of immigrants in Indiana? Efforts to integrate minorities into the broader community? Fair trade? These young people are working on all of these issues, and many others, with passion and realism.

The students who convened the forum asked participants to consider who should be involved in an effort to make our city an international humanitarian “hub,” and what benefits might accrue to the city from such an effort. The clear consensus was that creating such a hub should not mean trying to lure the headquarters of large humanitarian organizations–that instead it should be accomplished, if possible, by encouraging and facilitating the efforts that are already percolating among our young social entrepreneurs, and working with organizations like Kiwanis, the National Guard and many others who are already engaged in these efforts.

There was also a consensus that creating such a hub would make Indianapolis a more inclusive, welcoming city–a city that people would want to live and work in. (Others noted that changes in the Indiana legislature will be needed in order to create an “inclusive” culture. Immigrant-bashing and anti-gay measures aren’t exactly helping.)

I left the meeting feeling the way I often do after a discussion with students in my class–hopeful that the next generation will be able to clear away some of the social debris my own generation is leaving them. Americans talk a lot about values–the young people with whom I interact demonstrate the values important to a just society–compassion, personal responsibility, a recognition of what we might call social duty. They are both idealistic and realistic, and that is so encouraging at a a time when major party Presidential candidates are neither.

The class will hold its next community forum at the Lilly Auditorium in IUPUI’s Library from 7-9 on November 29th. The topic: distrust in government. (Full disclosure: I’ll be on one of the panels.)

If you are interested in learning more about these efforts, and the literally hundreds of humanitarian programs and organizations that already exist, check