Information and the world of tomorrow. Why all this matters. It cannot be seen or touched. It is not composed of matter at all.
Illustration by Davor Pavelic Would you rather help one child a little bit today, or wait a few years and help five children even more?
Admittedly, this trade-off is complex, imprecise, and uncertain. But the promise of research that can help us do more good per dollar spent is enticing. Good impact evaluations—those that answer policy-relevant questions with rigor—have improved development knowledge, policy, and practice.
For example, the NGO Living Goods conducted a rigorous evaluation to measure the impact of its community health model based on door-to-door sales and promotions. The evidence of impact was strong: Their model generated a percent reduction in child mortality.
Meanwhile, rigorous evidence continues to further validate the model and help to make it work even better. Of course, not all rigorous research offers such quick and rosy results. Consider the many studies required to discover a successful drug and the lengthy process of seeking regulatory approval and adoption by the healthcare system.
The same holds true for fighting poverty: Innovations for Poverty Action IPAa research and policy nonprofit that promotes impact evaluations for finding solutions to global poverty, has conducted more than randomized controlled trials RCTs since its inception in These studies have sometimes provided evidence about how best to use scarce resources e.
But the vast majority of studies did not paint a clear picture that led to immediate policy changes. Developing an evidence base is more like building a mosaic: Each individual piece does not make the picture, but bit by bit a picture becomes clearer and clearer.
How do these investments in evidence pay off? The ratio was 74x—a huge result. But this is far from a precise measure of impact, since IPA cannot establish what would have happened had IPA never existed.
Yes, IPA recognizes the irony of advocating for RCTs while being unable to subject its own operations to that standard. Many questions and circumstances do not call for RCTs. Even so, a simple thought exercise helps to demonstrate the potential payoff.
IPA never works alone—all evaluations and policy engagements are conducted in partnership with academics and implementing organizations, and increasingly with governments. Moving from an idea to the research phase to policy takes multiple steps and actors, often over many years.
But even if IPA deserves only 10 percent of the credit for the policy changes behind the benefits calculated above, the ratio of benefits to costs is still 7. That is a solid return on investment. Despite the demonstrated value of high-quality impact evaluations, a great deal of money and time has been wasted on poorly designed, poorly implemented, and poorly conceived impact evaluations.
Perhaps some studies had too small of a sample or paid insufficient attention to establishing causality and quality data, and hence any results should be ignored; others perhaps failed to engage stakeholders appropriately, and as a consequence useful results were never put to use.
The push for more and more impact measurement can not only lead to poor studies and wasted money, but also distract and take resources from collecting data that can actually help improve the performance of an effort.
Goldilocks, lost in the forest, finds an empty house with a large number of options: She tries each but finds that most do not suit her: Some will push for more and more data; others will not push for enough. To create a right-fit evidence system, we need to consider not only when to measure impact, but when not to measure impact.
Given all the benefits of impact measurement, it may seem irresponsible not to try to measure it. But there are situations in which an insistent focus on measuring impact can be counterproductive to collecting other important data.
Misplaced Priorities How have we reached this point? If impact evaluation is so important, why are we advocating for limiting its use? The rapidly decreasing costs of data collection and analysis have certainly helped to heighten the appeal of impact measurement.
Thirty years ago, frugal budgets restricted long-distance calls. Now free videoconferencing can connect people from multiple countries all at once. Previously, organizations might have argued that collecting data is too time-consuming and expensive.
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