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Everyone Realizes the Challenges of Causal Inference

- April 1, 2008

Chris Blattman is posting from Liberia. This story will warm the hearts of anyone who’s ever taught research methods:

bq. You know experimental program evaluation has become a craze when even the Imams want it.

bq. Today we sat down with an inter-faith network of Liberian religious leaders to talk about their peace building plans. They are a truly inspiring organization, building local capacity to resolve conflicts, and training mediators to resolve disputes in the community. The countryside is, to some extent, a powder keg, and they are building local early warning systems and rapid response capability to potentially serious conflicts.

bq. Moreover, to reduce tensions in conflict-prone places, these religious leaders–principally Muslims and Christians–do not just aspire to a new social contract, they sit down with ethnic and religious leaders in each village and coax them to actually write one, specifying norms and sanctions.

bq. And they want to know if it’s working.

bq. I hum and haw about comparison groups, going through my impact evaluation 101 schpiel. I have serious concerns that one would or could develop a control group, let alone randomize, for such a program. So I dance delicately around the subject.

bq. “Wait a minute,” interrupts the Imam, “Are you talking about a randomized control trial?”

bq. I gape.

bq. “Oh I see!” says one Reverend Minister, “We need a control group! This is a good idea.”

bq. It turns out his holiness was once an agronomist. “This is just like our control plots for fertilizer. But how are we going to control for spillover effects?”

bq. An older Methodist leader frowns sitting in the corner glowers. “Please, a moment,” he says. “I see a real problem here.”

bq. Here it comes. Here is the doubt and questioning I expected. We’re talking about a peace building exercise, not fertilizer on a farm plot. Even I have my reservations. This man, of an older generation, clearly has other priorities.

bq. “How,” he asks “are we going to select a proper sample?”