Impact evaluations look at what difference a programme or intervention made: did it for example lead to increased women empowerment?
Photo: Curt Carnemark/The World Bank

27.03.2018

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No, it is not a Root Canal Treatment, although some sceptics view them similarly. RCT, or Randomised Controlled Trial, is an evaluation design which when applied to the right type of questions, done in the right way, supplemented by alternative methods and interpreted correctly yields probably the most robust results any evaluation design can achieve, and this with less pain (dental or otherwise) than some of the alternatives. An overview on challenges and opportunities.

Randomised controlled trial (RCT) is one of a range of designs known as impact evaluations whose explicit purpose is an analysis of attribution. The name is actually misleading as it could be understood as designs that exclusively measure impact indicators. Impact evaluations should more appropriately have been titled counterfactual evaluations or attribution analysis. Be that as it may, attributing an effect (be it an output, outcome or impact) to an intervention means that all other factors outside of the intervention that could also influence the outcome are held constant (or in the jargon “are controlled for”). Typical factors in the rural environment that need to be controlled for are season, weather, access or distance to markets and market prices (White, 2009, 2013).

A ‘with versus without’ analysis

So how do impact evaluations, and RCTs more specifically, control for these factors? Impact evaluations look at what difference a programme or intervention made: did it lead to measurable improvements on some outcome of interest, be it latrine-use in rural India, higher farm incomes through weather index insurance in Tanzania, or increased women empowerment through mobile money (digital financial services) in Northern Uganda?

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