Randomista economics: A critique from Naila Kabeer

Worth a read - Naila Kabeer's strong rebuttal of Esther Duflo's  proposition that affirmative action for gender equality is distortionary and inefficient. Kabeer points to the "selective storytelling" that replicates familiar biases and constructs a narrative that is not borne out by experiences on the ground.   


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Comment by Pamela del Canto on February 11, 2021 at 16:16

Thank you for sharing this article. I've always felt uncomfortable with Duflo's RCT development techniques because of the way people are objectified and the lack of structural change that it fails to realize. It is such a relief to see practitioners such as Kabeer put into words that which is felt by so many of us in the development field. 

Comment by Joan DeJaeghere on February 5, 2021 at 20:28

I appreciate this discussion of Kabeer's response to RCTs and her examples of qualitative research and on-the ground work. 

In a study focused on youth livelihoods where a matching sample (PSM) was used to examine outcomes of programs as well as rich qualitative data over 5 years, we found disconnects between the short-term findings of quasi-experimental designs and the qualitative data. But getting both governments and donors to both support and listen to the qualitative findings is a challenge.  

More about the shortcomings of RCTs/quasi-experimental designs and livelihoods here:  

DeJaeghere, J., Morris, E. & Bamattre R. (2020). Moving beyond employment and earnings: reframing how youth livelihoods and wellbeing are evaluated in East Africa. Journal of Youth Studies, 23, 5, 667-685. https://doi.org/10.1080/13676261.2019.1636013

Comment by Rituu B Nanda on February 5, 2021 at 18:38

ISST had organised a presentation on RCTs and gender .

Randomized Control Trials through a Gender lens

On 19th July 2013, the Institute of Social Studies Trust (ISST), hosted a reflection session on ‘Randomized Control Trials and Gender’, at the National Foundation of India, India Habitat Centre.  The session was organized with the primary aim of building an informal network of students and professionals, either working in or interested in the areas of evaluation and gender. Being first in the series of reflection sessions that have been planned under the project ‘Engendering Policy through Evaluation’ (funded by IDRC, Canada and the Ford Foundation), the session aimed at enhancing the participants’ knowledge and understanding of RCT’s while giving them the space to reflect upon the ways in which their implementation is effected by and in turn impacts gender relations.

Read more https://gendereval.ning.com/forum/topics/randomized-control-trials-...

Comment by Anne Stephens on February 5, 2021 at 12:52

Thanks for sharing this.  I settled in with a coffee, in a comfy chair and indulged myself in reading this. What a joy. 

I’m a lover of methodology, as a discipline. I love the ontological challenges and the creativity of sorting out just how are we going to know the answer to this, this, problem!!! I’m one who reads the methodology section of a paper, because, I value the importance of getting the process right- everything you say hinges on how you came to know it.

So, I won’t recap the article. But it provides a dense precise of research practices that try to convince us of a particular political view. I guess my favourite line in the whole piece is:

… the evidence does not speak for itself, regardless of how rigorous the evaluation: interpretation matters. (p.8)

YES. It absolutely does, and not just the privileged researcher's interpretation. 

Essentially, it boils down to proponents utilising designs characterised by ‘…short, linear, mono-causal, and event-proof causal chains – single causes leading to single short-term effects’ to dissuade us from believing that direct investment in gender equality and women’s empowerment, can make a difference. That ‘what works’ is broad-based, gender neutral development, as this will promote gender equality anyway.

So, Kabeer demolishes this argument, effectively. Vindicating both my life’s work as a proponent of systemic, action and grounded methodologies, and forthcoming work I did for UN Women on impact evaluation approaches for the prevention of violence against women and girls that recommends very careful and select use of RCT and quasi-experimental design, in certain contexts. It is not widely recommended.

The Gender Snapshot 2020 was released today. https://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2020/09/pro... It is therefore a fitting time to read this work and ponder Kabeer's sobering final words. 

Citing OECD data, 72.2 billion USD was spent on development with no focus on gender equality. 40.2 billion USD had gender equality as a secondary objective. Just 4.6 billion had gender equality as the primary goal. Money for women’s empowerment, and empowerment in the economy in particular, is “still a drop in the ocean” (quoting the OECD, p.21).

Comment by Rituu B Nanda on February 5, 2021 at 9:50

Thanks Kalyani for posting. 

Prof Kabeer produced a documentary and working paper for teaching purposes. It compares strengths/weaknesses of quantitative (RCT) and qualitative assessments of similar programs & also what we can learn from program approach,. Links to both documentary & paper 



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