A dirty little secret of the NGO world is that funders and grant recipients sometimes silently conspire to agree on statistics that show a program “works,” without rigorous measurement, since both the funders and the recipients want to show results.
Organizations everywhere dedicated to solving some of the world’s most pressing challenges have launched a variety of new efforts to meticulously measure the intended impact of their work. This is nothing less than a revolution in social innovation that is bringing new, scientific rigor to gauging results. These organizations are now eschewing the top-down problem solving that has been the standard in their relative fields for decades.
Consider the clinical trial. Most people probably associate so-called randomized controlled trials with the testing of new drugs. One group of people take a new pill while another group gets a placebo. The participants are monitored to see who is better off.
But in recent years the use of randomized controlled trials has migrated from measuring the effectiveness of drugs to rigorously evaluating policies and programs designed to do social good. Rather than just assuming that a bright idea is changing the world because something is happening, scientists compare how much desired outcomes are evident among people exposed to a program as opposed to people who were not. The results can be remarkably instructive.
Cooking stoves are a good example. At a September 2010 meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unveiled a public-private partnership led by the United Nations Foundation to put new, efficient, clean, cheap cooking stoves in 100 million homes by 2020. “We can finally envision a future in which open fires and dirty stoves are replaced by clean, efficient and affordable stoves and fuels all over the world,” she said.
As mundane as they may seem, cooking stoves are a very big deal. By the State Department’s count, 3 billion people around the world cook their food above open fires or on old, inefficient stoves in poorly ventilated homes. The smoke and toxins cause pneumonia and respiratory disease in women and their families, and the inefficient stoves contribute to climate change.
But simply handing out new cooking stoves, it turns out, doesn’t work as intended.
Image: Member of Sewa cook food on tradional cookstove (R) as well as on clean cookstove (L) at the SEWA Centre in Ganeshpura Village in district Mehsena of Indian State of Gujarat. (via Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves)
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