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Sophie Webber, ‘The new “gold standard”: experimentalism, behaviouralism, and marketisation for development’

by Gareth Bryant on September 14, 2017

2017 Political Economy Seminar Series

Sophie Webber (University of Sydney), ‘The new “gold standard”: experimentalism, behaviouralism, and marketisation for development

Date: Thursday 21 September 2017

Time: 4:00pm-5.30pm

Location: Merewether Seminar Room 398, University of Sydney

Abstract: Development economics and institutions have a new ‘gold standard’: the randomized control trial, or RCT. An RCT is an evaluation technique that draws from experimental design in order to measure the impact of a development project. Due to randomization – randomly distributing people or communities to receive either control or treatment – advocates suggest that it is possible to measure the impact of an intervention, and attribute a causal relationship between the intervention and its outcome. As such, proponents claim that RCTs are able to get to the heart of what really ‘works’ for development interventions. This paper charts the rise of RCTs within two major development institutions: the World Bank, and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Drawing from fieldwork at these two institutions, we follow RCTs as a technology of development, finding that they take divergent forms at each of the institutions. The paper examines the contested and uneven paths of RCTs as they have proliferated throughout development economics scholarship and practice, and teases out the new problems, subjects, spaces and governance regimes of development that RCTs engender. We build on existing research within economic geography concerned with the rise of behaviouralism as a tool for expanded, and corrected, marketisation. By centring the methodology of RCTs, we find institutional and geographical variation, as well as a reconfiguration of development governance through experimentation.

About the speaker: Sophie is a human geographer, who conducts research about the political economies of climate change and international development assistance, principally in South East Asia and the Pacific region. In particular, Sophie studies how ‘truth’ (knowledge claims and expertise), ‘capital’ (financial flows and investments), and policy packages structure relations between the minority and majority worlds. Methodologically, this research requires relational fieldwork, examining how climatological and developmental crises and problems are interpreted, storied, and managed, both by local and governmental authorities, as well as by distant international experts such as the World Bank.

Within this broad interest, Sophie is currently working on three related projects. The first is an ongoing engagement with the roll-out of climate change adaptation programming in Pacific Islands, and by international development experts. Building on this research, Sophie is currently examining efforts by climate scientists and development experts to create bundles of useful climate science, called ‘climate services’, and the commercialization that this entails. The second concerns the rise of evidence-based policy-making, including the proliferation of randomized control trials to assess development interventions. The third project is a collaborative investigation of the growth of urban resilience frameworks, associated financial tools, and their attempted implementation in Jakarta.

Gareth Bryant
Gareth Bryant is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney.

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