Go short on randomized control trials?

What would be the effects of disbursing $1-1.5 billion of foreign aid to Pakistan? RCTs [randomized control trials] do not, and cannot, have anything to say on the matter—not only because of their narrow focus and applicability, and hence non-generalizability, but also because they cannot speak to macroeconomic effects.

…We are still left to rely on other evidence—economic and historic—about the effects of aid in stunting institutional development, in creating aid-dependence, in entrenching the hold of the bad guys, and in making the export sector uncompetitive in a way that is detrimental to long run development.

That is Arvind Subramanian responding to Nick Kristof’s ringing endorsement of RCTs in development.

Clearly I think RCTs have a huge role to play in aid and development research, but should young academics be answering this clarion call?

If I had to pick development research like stocks, I would be shorting program evaluations and buying the unfashionable stuff–including the macroeconomic, historical and institutional research.

I have substantive reasons for saying so, but as a general rule, any research trumpeted in the opinion column of the Times is probably on its way off the frontier.