Last week, a major international development charity did something remarkable: It admitted that one of its programs didn’t seem to work.
No Lean Season was created to help poor families in rural Bangladesh during planting and harvesting season. During that period, typically September to November, there are no jobs and no income, and families go hungry. By some estimates, at least 300 million of the rural poor may be affected by seasonal poverty.
No Lean Season aimed to solve that by giving small subsidies to workers so they could migrate to urban areas, where there are job opportunities, for the months before the harvest. In small trials, it worked great. A $20 subsidy was enough to convince people to take the leap. They found jobs in the city, sent money home, returned for the harvest season, and made the trip again in subsequent years, even without another subsidy.
So Evidence Action, the nonprofit that funded the pilot programs of No Lean Season, invested big in scaling it up. In 2016, it had run the program in 82 villages; in 2017, it offered it in 699. No Lean Season made GiveWell’s list of top charities.
Evidence Action wanted more data to assess the program’s effectiveness, so it participated in a rigorous randomized controlled trial (RCT) – the gold standard for effectiveness research for interventions like these – of the program’s benefits at scale.
Last week, the results from the study finally came in – and they were disappointing. In a blog post, Evidence Action wrote: “An RCT-at-scale found that the [No Lean Season] program did not have the desired impact on inducing migration, and consequently did not increase income or consumption.” (The emphasis is in the original blog post.)
This admission was a big deal in development circles.