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Impact Evaluation: A Woman's Best Friend?

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Since the early 1900s, the world celebrates international women's day each March. In the earlier years, there was not much to "celebrate." Today, there is. The past three decades have witnessed real progress towards gender equity. Women have gained access to education, health, jobs, land, and other assets that were once out of their reach. They now live 20 years longer than they did in 1960. Girls are as likely as boys to go to primary school in just about every country--and in 60 of those countries there are more young women in university than men. And over half a billion women have joined the labor force. Nobody can deny that our sisters have more opportunities than our mothers and fewer than our daughters.

Of course, progress towards gender equity is not the same as gender equity itself. In Malawi, a female farmer produces a quarter less per hectare than a man--mainly because she can't access the same inputs. A mother in Afghanistan has a one in 32 chance of dying while giving birth. Women entrepreneurs in Bangladesh make 12 cents for every dollar men make. And you only have to watch the news to see that women are under-represented in politics, business, and many professions. [Don't think this is a poor-country problem: female workers in Germany make 62 cents for every Euro men make.]

This sense of insufficient progress, of being half-way across the river, is frustrating: many smart people and well-meaning institutions have worked for a very long time on policies, programs, and projects to advance the cause of women. They have spent billions of dollars. The results have, on the whole, been underwhelming, mostly because cultural norms still play a big role and may be hard to change. Can those committed champions get more for their efforts to level the playing field for women? Can we accelerate the march toward gender-blind societies? Yes, we can. The key is to tell apart what works from what doesn't--and invest more in the former. The tool to do just that is called "impact evaluation."

One crude way to understand impact evaluations is to think of them as a medical trial: to know whether a new pill works, you select two groups of people at random, one takes the pill ("the treatment", in technical parlance) and the other doesn't (they are the "control group"). You then compare how the two groups react and figure out what the pill actually did. Well, you can apply the same principle to the world's toughest gender problems, and what you learn is pretty amazing.

Here are some examples. A team of researchers looked at the impact of reserving local government positions for women in India--a third of the electoral districts were randomly selected for that. This made a huge difference. Compared to other districts, in the selected third it became more likely for public investment to be aligned with female preferences, for crime against women to be reported, and for parents to send their daughters to school.

When Rwanda piloted a land registration system, it made sure that women got rights equal to men and, in particular, equal to their husbands. The system initially covered only a few rural areas. So, it was easy to compare households living just inside the borders of those areas with those living just outside--that is, to compare neighbors who had received "the treatment" with others who had not. It turns out that when female farmers feel that their property rights are secured, they increase their investment twice as much as men. In other words, if you want them to produce more, give them clear titles to what is theirs, and everyone will be better off.

In Uganda, a program to empower adolescent girls through mentoring, reproductive education, and job skills proved, through an impact evaluation, to be a real game-changer: those who participated in the program became a third more likely to find work and a quarter less likely to get pregnant--while their odds of being raped fell from one in five to almost zero.

But the beauty of impact evaluations is that they also show what doesn't work--even things that you were sure would help women. Take training for female business owners, a popular way to try to help them prosper. What can be wrong with that? Nothing, except that, in most cases, it makes little or no difference for the bottom-line of women-owned enterprises. A recent review of evaluations of this kind of training in places like Pakistan, Peru, and Tanzania, suggests that it does not yield great value for money.

Granted, whether something works--or doesn't--in a certain community at a certain time does not mean that it will work--or fail--everywhere later on. You can't easily generalize the results of an impact evaluation. But you can distill lessons, compare experiences, debunk myths, spot problems, and test solutions. In other words, you learn. And the accumulated knowledge makes you more effective next time around. It is no surprise that many organizations--from donors and academia to NGOs and multi-lateral banks--are currently dedicated to using impact evaluations to attack some of the most urgent challenges in economic development. Reaching gender equity should be at the top of their list--not just on Women's Day, but every day.

This article was co-authored with Markus Goldstein, the head of the World Bank's "Africa Gender Innovation Lab"