External Validity in a Stochastic World: Evidence from Low-Income Countries

We examine empirically the generalizability of internally valid micro estimates of causal effects in a fixed population over time when that population is subject to aggregate shocks. Using panel data we show that the returns to investments in agriculture in India and Ghana, small and medium non-farm enterprises in Sri Lanka, and schooling in Indonesia fluctuate significantly across time periods. We show how the returns to these investments interact with specific, measurable and economically-relevant aggregate shocks, focusing on rainfall and price fluctuations. We also obtain lower-bound estimates of confidence intervals of the returns based on estimates of the parameters of the distributions of rainfall shocks in our two agricultural samples. We find that even these lower-bound confidence intervals are substantially wider than those based solely on sampling error that are commonly provided in studies, most of which are based on single-year samples. We also find that cross-sectional variation in rainfall cannot be confidently used to replicate within-population rainfall variability. Based on our findings, we discuss methods for incorporating information on external shocks into evaluations of the returns
to policy.

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