How Much Can We Generalize from Impact Evaluations?
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Impact evaluations aim to predict the future, but they are rooted in particular contexts and to what extent they generalize is an open and important question. The author exploit a new data set of results on a wide variety of interventions and find more heterogeneity than in other literatures. This has implications for how evidence is generated and used to inform policy. This paper uses a database of impact evaluation results collected by AidGrade, a U.S. non-profit research institute founded by the author in 2012. AidGrade focuses on gathering the results of impact evaluations and analyzing the data, including through meta-analysis. Its data on impact evaluation results were collected in the course of its meta-analyses from 2012-2014. The research also found evidence of systematic variation in effect sizes that is surprisingly robust across different interventions and outcomes. Smaller studies tended to have larger effect sizes, which we might expect if the smaller studies are better-targeted, are selected to be evaluated when there is a higher a priori expectation they will have a large effect size, or if there is a preference to report larger effect sizes, which smaller studies would obtain more often by chance. Government-implemented programs also had smaller effect sizes than academic/NGO-implemented programs, even after controlling for sample size. This is unfortunate given we often do smaller impact evaluations with NGOs in the hopes of finding a strong positive effect that can scale through government implementation and points to the importance of research on scaling up interventions.