A U.S. firm that specializes in evidence-based evaluations of social services programs is setting its sights on the developing world.

Mathematica Policy Research has launched the Center for International Policy Research and Evaluation, which plans to study the effectiveness of programs aimed at helping the most vulnerable people around the world. The center will look at approaches to education and training, health and nutrition, water and sanitation, democracy and governance, agriculture and rural development, and investments in infrastructure.

Mathematica formed in the late 1960s to study the merits of the New Jersey Negative Income Tax Experiment, which sought to help low-income people find employment and leave public assistance programs. The firm still evaluates domestic programs. Just this month it published interim findings on the effectiveness of demonstration projects for employing young people with disabilities in five states. In the past decade, Mathematica's scope of work has expanded beyond the U.S., testing interventions in more than 30 countries.

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"We have been growing rapidly," says center Director Anu Rangarajan. "We wanted to take a little more of a thoughtful, deliberate approach."

First up for the new center? A study of investments by the U.S. Agency for International Development on early literacy and access to education in Latin America and the Caribbean. The center also won a contract to review the MasterCard Foundation's Scholarship Program, which helps low-income youths in African countries -- currently Ghana and Uganda -- receive schooling and link up to employment opportunities.

Some of the first reports scheduled to publish under the new center banner will be on baseline data and interim impact estimates from a multiyear assessment on school dropout prevention strategies in India, Tajikistan, Cambodia and Timor Leste. The center also plans to generate preliminary impact estimates of a democracy and governance initiative in Rwanda.

Although the center's focus will be on programs outside the United States, state and local leaders might want to pay attention to some of the experiments going on abroad and apply them here, says Rangarajan. Ongoing evaluations by Mathematica of scholarship programs for at-risk youth, for example, might offer valuable lessons for U.S. educators.

A precedent for replicating international social services programs already exists: New York City's Family Rewards program, for example, is trying out conditional cash transfers, an anti-poverty tool that grew in popularity in Latin American and African countries in the 1990s and early 2000s. The general concept is to offer cash assistance to low-income households on the condition that they increase their "human capital" through education and preventative health visits. (Mathematica tested one such program in Jamaica in 2007.)

The idea gained traction in New York City after Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed a commission in 2006 to scan for new ideas on reducing poverty, according to Kristin Morse, executive director for New York City's Center for Economic Opportunity. "Conditional cash transfers was one of the most unique and controversial, but we found the evidence from Latin America to be very compelling," she says. Morse recalled that studies on Mexico's Oportunidades program, which bore overwhelmingly positive results on education and health outcomes, were particularly persuasive.

New York City has given the program its own spin. Mexico uses school attendance as a condition for receiving cash assistance. In New York, recipients must meet achievement benchmarks, such as improved performance on standardized tests. It also added employment and training incentives, which other international models don't include. After a three-year pilot in six of the city's poorest neighborhoods, the Center for Economic Opportunity partnered with the federal government's Social Innovation Fund to launch a second pilot in 2011, this time in the South Bronx. Memphis, Tenn., is also testing conditional cash transfers.

As with the international versions, Family Rewards is being evaluated. MDRC, an education and social policy firm, has published several reports on the impacts of conditional cash transfers here, which found some positive effects on families' economic well-being, but mixed results on children's education, family health care and parent employment.

Nancy Murray, a deputy director at the center, calls policies that work here and abroad "bidirectional." The center's evaluation of dropout prevention pilots in four Asian countries, for example, involves a U.S.-based program reappropriated for an international context. When it comes to working with at-risk youths and early childhood, Murray says, "there's a lot of commonality in terms of the problems."