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Alex Counts is the President and CEO of Grameen Foundation and a biographer of Muhammad Yunus, the Grameen Bank founder. Given his position in the large network of Grameen, he holds sway in the microfinance world and beyond. So when he publishes an attack on independent research on his blog, I take to represent a reasonably broad antiscience sentiment in the microfinance industry.

In his article, the head of Grameen Foundation laments the emergence of “a new generation of researchers” rising to “debunk the myth of microfinance being an effective tool to fight poverty” (I consider myself part of this generation, but I’m sure Counts doesn’t mean me). He writes about a “conflict” between researchers and practitioners, questions whether practitioners are to blame for not having brought researchers into the fold, says researchers have supported sensationalist reporting against microfinance, and claims they have not tried to contribute (enough) to poverty alleviation. Then he delves into an elogy for Tim Ogden, head of the Financial Access Initiative at NYU. The overall message – research results which don’t support microfinance should be disregarded; the title-giving Haiti cue is a bit of a red herring – is akin to a call to sticking one’s head in the sand when threatened.

The ostrich, unlike the microfinance CEO, is falsely believed to stick its head in the sand when it feels threatened.

Image: Bob Jagendorf/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0.

I’m writing this to respond to Counts’ piece and his core request “that we get beyond debates about “whether microfinance works” to more fruitful and action-oriented dialogues about “how it can work better”.” The following is my small defense of academia. Read the rest of this entry »

This guest post is provided by Milford Bateman who is a Visiting Professor of Economics at Juraj Dobrila University of Pula in Croatia and a development consultant. He recently accepted a two-month position as Distinguished Visiting Professor of Development Studies at St Mary’s University in Nova Scotia, Canada, to be taken up in late 2013.

Four of the most high-profile research teams have in recent months released papers summarising the results of multi-year projects that aimed to assess the impact of microcredit. All of these projects claim to have found some small residual value in the increasingly de-bunked concept of microcredit which, the authors quickly go on to say, suggests to them that it is too early to agree with the growing number of nay-sayers and abandon the microcredit model in favour of other local development models.  The four papers I refer to are:

Dazzling econometrics and pioneering impact methodologies aside, the most important thing these four papers all have in common is actually something else: they all go to great lengths to avoid exploring the most awkward downside issues that lie at the heart of microcredit and, to do so, they choose to deploy some faulty logic along the way. Read the rest of this entry »

CGAP is the World Bank’s (not-quite-so-)arm’s-length sub-organisation whose role is to promote microfinance. CGAP (“see-gap“) once stood for “Consultative Group to Assist the Poorest“, now it officially stands for “Consultative Group to Assist the Poor”. Actually, if nomen were to be omen, it should probably stand for “Consultative Group to assist (those who lend to) the Poor (and not-so poor)”.

Courtesy of Wenger Swiss Army Kives

So many functions … but can it cut?

I don’t expect CGAP to function as an independent evaluator of microfinance. What I do expect is that CGAP publications have minimum standards of research quality and logic.

The most recent CGAP report, entitled “Latest Findings from Randomized Evaluations of Microfinance” (Bauchet et. al.), however, is appalling on both counts. Nearly everything about this report is problematic. It is racked by wishful thinking – to paraphrase: “we may not have evidence that microfinance does what it was supposed to, but we still believe it works” – and it has a disturbing feel about it, which derives from: (1) what the authors have left out, and (2) the heavy tension between concern for the poor and patronising them.

Read the rest of this entry »

In 2002 in the run-up to the USA’s second invasion of Iraq, when he was challenged about the allegations made by the Bush administration about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) arsenal, Donald Rumsfeld made a memorable logical statement: The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. … Simply because you do not have evidence that something exists does not mean that you have evidence that it doesn’t exist.”

A parody of Rumsfeld from the (massively under-appreciated) comic series “The Boondocks”. Warning: coarse language.

In terms of twisted logic, Rumsfeld was right: the fact that intelligence couldn’t find conclusive proof for WMDs in Iraq didn’t necessarily mean they weren’t there; their available methods simply weren’t good enough to find them. But empirically, of course, he was wrong: as we now know, the reason why no proof was found for the WMDs was, they simply weren’t there.

Fast-forward to 2011, to a debate about the evidence for positive impacts of microfinance. Six British researchers recently published an exhaustive study (actually a Systematic Review, S.R.); as I explained on this blog, they pulled together all existing 2,643 publications about microfinance’s impact and looked in depth at the best 58.

Their conclusions – which are too complex and fine-grained to really present in a nutshell – effectively: (1) raised doubts about the research designs used so far, (2) re-iterated that the available evidence could “neither support nor deny the notion that microfinance is pro-poor and pro-women”, and (3) suggested that there has been an “inappropriate optimism towards microfinance”. And finally, they suggested that pursuing microfinance without proof that it works bears the risk of not running other programmes which could work better – opportunity cost. Read the rest of this entry »

What is the evidence of the impact
of microfinance on the well-being of
poor people?

Maren Duvendack, Richard Palmer-Jones, James G Copestake, Lee Hooper, Yoon Loke, Nitya Rao

August 2011

London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London.

A new systematic review of the evidence on microfinance, published last week, is dynamite for the world’s most popular development policy. Madeleine Bunting of the Guardian has already referred to it as “microfinance’s sober reckoning”, likening the findings to a “hangover after a big party”. Bangladeshi news calls it a “damning report”.

Being co-published by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), previously a strong microfinance supporter, this “study of studies” comes from deep within the policy community – a first for a truly critical study of microfinance. The authors (economists and medical researchers mainly based at the University of East Anglia) looked at thousands of existing studies on microfinance. Their conclusions are anything but minced words:

Our report shows that almost all impact evaluations of microfinance suffer from weak methodologies and
inadequate data, thus adversely affecting the reliability of impact estimates. Nevertheless authors often draw strong policy conclusions generally supportive of microfinance. This may have lead to misconceptions about the actual effects of programmes, thereby diverting attention from the search for perhaps more pro-poor interventions and more robust evaluations. (from the Policy Brief)

So, after 30-odd years and $ hundreds of billions of lending, there still is no proof that microfinance actually works. Read the rest of this entry »

The Book

Governance across borders: transnational fields and transversal themes. Leonhard Dobusch, Philip Mader and Sigrid Quack (eds.), 2013, epubli publishers.
February 2017
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