The most good you can do

I decided I wanted to work in international development whilst I was still at secondary school; that’s high school for Americans. So I went off to university to do Development Studies at the University of East Anglia. Once there, I soon changed my mind about what I wanted to do. Rather than going to work in Africa building bridges, I wanted to work on policy research. When I told my father this decision he said ‘I am surprised you want to study poor people rather than actually help them’. I thought he was wrong about that. By working on a project you may improve the lives of a few hundred or thousand people, but by working to identify effective policies you can help millions have a better life.  I still believe that. Research on effective policies, programmes and practice is the most good you can do.

I told this story recently at the What Works Global Summit. Shortly afterwards I read Peter Singer’s The Most Good You Can Do. Singer is an eloquent proponent of effective altruism: giving money to support effective programmes to help the world’s poor. I don’t disagree with this at all. But for it to be possible we need to know which programmes are effective. Singer supports using randomized trials (RCTs) to provide rigorous evidence. He writes appreciatively of the work of J-PAL and IPA in conducting such studies.

But there are two problems here. First, despite the rapid growth of rigorous evaluations, there are still not enough studies of enough programmes in enough contexts. Second, RCTs are widely regarded as having strong internal validity but weak external validity. That is, they are good for testing if a programme works in a specific context, but less so for identifying whether the same programme will work elsewhere.

Enter systematic reviews. By compiling all the available high quality evidence on particular interventions we can identify those which work everywhere and those which never work anywhere. Or it may be that interventions work in particular contexts for specific populations, but not everywhere or for everyone. A good systematic review uses what is called moderator analysis to unpack not just the question of what works, but also where, for who and at what cost.

Unfortunately, most donors like to feel they are giving directly to benefit the poor. Even in development agencies, research department budgets are often the first to go in lean times. Governments see researchers as ‘overhead’ rather than front line delivery. Knowledge of what works is a global public good, and so like most public goods remains underfunded.

So, to borrow Singer’s expression, what is the most good you can do? If you have a US$1 million how should you give it away? Answer: support research on effectiveness, and systematic reviews of that research. With the growth of the effective altruism movement, the leverage from such investments is huge, diverting other people’s money away from things that don’t work, or work less well, to the most effective programmes.  

Do you want to spend your money on a programme with unproven effectiveness? Or on building the evidence base so that future billions are spent to improve and save lives? Philanthropists and funding agencies – come on and do the most good you can do.

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