Randomized Control Trials (RCTs) are an experimental design used in development economics, in which people are randomly assigned to treatment or control groups in order to evaluate the impact of a certain policy intervention. These types of experiments can generate valuable data and contribute to the formulation of more effective policies. At the same time, they come with a huge responsibility. As a researcher conducting an RCT, you are experimenting with human subjects!
While disciplines like medicine and psychology have a long history of human subject research, it is a relatively new area for economists. Consequently, ethical guidelines and codes of conduct for economic experiments are not as well developed as the ones of their fellow colleagues. That is why the exploding rate of RCTs conducted in developing countries by development economists is especially alarming to me.
Macartan Humphreys, in his paper Reflections on the Ethics of Social Experimentation, summarizes my feeling of discomfort quite well, when he says:
In international development research these interventions can sometimes take the form of researchers from wealthy institutions manipulating citizens from poorer populations to answer questions of little interest to those populations.
Despite the noble intentions of the researchers, all too often development research becomes ‘extractive’ and reproduces already existing power differentials. ‘Extractive’ because often development research seems to benefit more the researcher itself, in terms of his publications and career, than the actual subjects of the research. Additionally, the existing power differential between the countries of the Global North and the Global South is even more confirmed by a white researcher travelling to a country of the Global South and taking the position of an experimenter, who has the right to intervene in local people’s lives. Experimental interventions have real-world consequences, the consequences can be harmless, but often they are not predictable and sometimes they are even adverse.
Consider the following scenario:
What if a Kenyan researcher travelled with a significant budget (according to local standards) to the US, arguing that American democracy is not as sane as it should be and set up an experiment seeking to enhance poor people’s electoral participation?
Probably he would not even get a visa.
I assume at lot of US citizens would be outraged. They would say it is a foreign interference into their domestic politics and undermining their nation’s sovereignty.
The perceptions of what constitutes development research and what crosses the line to foreign interference is context-dependent. The power differential between countries of the Global North and countries of the Global South is the consequence of history. Not always, but often countries of the Global North are tied to countries of the Global South through a history of colonial intervention, which has shaped the perception of the other in people’s minds. Our intention to conduct meaningful research, which has real-world relevance, makes us ignore this uncomfortable past way too easily.
Jacobus Cilliers, Oeindrila Dube and Bilal Siddiqi show in their new paper, which is aptly called The white-man effect, that race and nationality play a significant role, when conducting experiments, as they signal differences in wealth, power and authority.
They played the dictator game in 60 villages in Sierra Leone.
(Just a little reminder: A dictator game is a game in experimental economics with two players. Player 1 is the “dictator” and player 2 the “recipient”. Player 1 receives a sum of money and decides how the money will be shared between the two players and consequently player 2 receives the amount of money given to him by player 1.)
The dictator game was conducted by a team of five members. Four of them were Sierra Leoneans, including the team leader, and the fifth individual varied randomly. In control areas, he was a Sierra Leonean, in treatment areas he was a white foreigner. The team leader was the same person throughout all the games, he played an active role and instructed the players. The fifth person was not allowed to talk to the players and his task was to hand out money at the start of the game.
What did they found out?
The mere presence of a white foreigner affected the generosity of players.
There are two hypotheses:
1. Players perceive that the white person wants them to give more money and they want to impress him.
2. Players perceive that the white person is testing them for aid allocation and they give less to signal their ‘need’.
RCTs are not a panacea for the problems in this world. Ethical issues surrounding this new experimental approach in development economics have not been thoroughly reviewed and discussed within the profession. I would like to hear your opinion about it, what do you think about experiments in development economics? Under which conditions are they ethically acceptable and when not?
- Baele, Stéphane J. (2013): The Ethics of New Development Economics: Is the Experimental Approach to Development Economics morally wrong? In: The Journal of Philosophical Economics 7 (1).
- Cilliers, Jacobus; Dube, Oeindrila; Siddiqi, Bilal (2015): The white-man effect. How foreigner presence affects behavior in experiments. In: Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 118, S. 397–414.
- Humphreys, Macartan (2015): Reflections on the Ethics of Social Experimentation. In: Journal of Globalization and Development 6 (1).
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