Letting the world know ‘what works’

Randomised control trials pioneered by this year’s Economics Nobel winners have helped crack complex problems

November 10, 2019 12:44 am | Updated 12:44 am IST

New vistas Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee during a press conference at MIT.

New vistas Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee during a press conference at MIT.

When names of the winners of the Economics Nobel were announced, the Pratham office where I work came to a halt. Surprise soon gave way to jubilation, and within the hour, celebrations spread like wildfire. It was strange, almost surreal.

It shouldn’t have been such a huge surprise, though. Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer have been doing incredible work for the past two decades, transforming the field of development economics.

Through their work with randomised control trials (RCTs), they have pioneered a method to find answers to some of the world’s most complex problems. And they have done so while creating an entire network of professors and researchers who can be a part of this movement.

At Pratham, I have had the opportunity to have a ringside view of the impact of their work. Abhijit and Esther have been working with the non-governmental organisation for long (I was in primary school when the first trial was launched), and over the years, have become supporters, advisers and friends of our organisation.

As our work in improving basic reading and arithmetic for primary grades (referred to as Teaching at the Right Level, or TaRL) has evolved, the various RCTs have provided strong evidence of the effectiveness of our approach, while also helping us identify key drivers of impact. Through the evaluations, we have been able to spotlight the importance of identifying where children are and providing them appropriate instruction to “catch-up”. We have been able to confirm that distributing material alone is not enough, and that short bursts of instructional activities can create a considerable impact. And we have been able to prove that immense change can be made possible, by not just qualified teachers in schools but also volunteers in communities.

Mantra of change

The body of evidence created over the past few years has paved the way for change. Today, governments and organisations (not just across India but also in countries in Africa) have started adapting our approach. The reliable evidence generated by the RCTs has helped convince “others” of what is possible and has now led to programmes to improve outcomes for millions of children across the world.

In addition to becoming a fulcrum in this movement for helping improve learning outcomes, the RCTs have helped us constantly think better and more intelligently. As I write this piece, I am returning from visiting two trials under way.

In one of them, we are trying to figure out what will make communities take ownership of their children’s learning. In the other, we are trying to understand the effectiveness of an approach for younger children and help them take the “leap forward”.

The two trials focus on different age groups. They are being implemented in different geographies by separate teams. They also have separate (and distinct) research objectives and researchers (none of whom are from the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, whose founders include Professors Banerjee and Duflo). But they are both united by the fact that as Pratham enters the 25th year of its existence, they continue to help us understand “what works”. Help us figure out what the next step should be as we move forward in our mission for helping ensure that “every child is learning well”.


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