A commonly voiced critique of foundations is that our goals and strategies are hard to understand. Fair enough. Many of us could do a better job of explaining ourselves.
Within the Global Development and Population Program, we’ve certainly found it difficult to describe our strategies in compelling and concise ways. Each line of grantmaking has its own logic, specific to the subject matter as well as to the niche we believe can fill within a community of nonprofits, official agencies, and other private funders. We can and do write down the theories of change underlying our grant choices, but even with the presentational polish—Look! Boxes and arrows!—these are less like architectural drawings and more like sketches roughed out in the midst of construction. Our written strategy documents, let alone the text on our website, rarely give a full feel for what we do or how we think about it.
The challenges we face are not unique to foundations. They’re shared by virtually everyone whose work involves any degree of abstraction. Once one gets beyond an enterprise that can be described as, “We buy textbooks for schools in poor communities” or “We vaccinate children,” you’re in the land of abstraction – and it’s tricky terrain to navigate with bullet points. Just try to put “women’s economic empowerment” or “transparency and accountability” into plain language.
This problem is compounded when a foundation or any other organization covers a broad scope of subject matter. The unifying thread can seem banal—“we make information available to improve lives” —and understanding the strategy, activities, and intended outcomes requires real time and effort. We certainly don’t expect to figure out the strategies underlying our grantees’ work just from reading the documents available on their websites.
So what to do? We rely on that most old-fashioned form of communication: conversation. To understand the strategy of a grantee or prospective grantee organization, we ask questions—a lot of them. What are you trying to do in five years, two years, next year? Whose actions are you seeking to change? Why do you think that’s possible? How do you know you’re heading in the right direction? What do you see as the major obstacles? Where do you see the overall field heading? And those are just the warm-up—there are many more. In hearing the answers to all those questions we start to understand the thought processes behind a nuanced and dynamic strategy. It is so much more satisfying than reading any strategic plan or website copy, no matter how well written.
We’d be happy to have the tables turned on us, but honestly it just doesn’t happen very often. While we systematically consult with experts, including current and potential grantees, as we’re developing new strategies, typical conversations with grantees and grant-seekers have a different feel. In part because of the intrinsic power dynamics of funder-grantee relationships, and in part because prospective grantees often want to hear only enough about our strategy to ascertain whether their work is a fit for it, we just don’t get that many questions about our strategies during those conversations—and no, “When is the proposal due?” doesn’t count.
When current or prospective grantees do inquire about our strategic direction, they seem quite satisfied to hear a superficial answer. We almost never see a quizzical look, let alone hear questions like, “When you talk about policies that affect women’s economic empowerment, are you thinking about active labor market policies like job training, or macroeconomic policies that expand growth in sectors that tend to employ women?” It’s those sorts of questions that uncover the thinking behind the words, and help explain why we might fund one project or organization and not another.
The cost of having a conversation where only one side is asking questions is high. We’re not getting enough feedback on whether our strategies makes sense to others with different perspectives and experience. In the absence of specifics, people may spend time proposing work that we’re unlikely to fund. We get comments through anonymized surveys that we are opaque, and we spend hours writing and rewriting website text that in the end doesn’t clarify much at all.
Am I asking for an inquisition in every conversation? No. But I am suggesting that there is only one way to truly understand why we do what we do: Ask.
We award grants to organizations, but it’s people who have the ideas and who do the work. So when the people we’ve come to depend on retire or move to new opportunities, we can’t help but wonder what the change will bring. That is never truer than when the chief executive departs, and recruiting for his or her successor begins.
We’ve seen that a lot recently. Among the organizations in our portfolio that have gone through leadership searches in the past year are the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation, the Population Council, the Guttmacher Institute, and the Population Reference Bureau. I’m sure 2015 will bring more—every year does.
Leadership transitions are often filled with stress and uncertainty, but they can also afford opportunities to strengthen the relationship between a nonprofit organization and its funders. Here’s how:
Have an answer when we ask about a succession plan. A standard question we ask, particularly when working with a nonprofit organization that is led by its founder, is whether there’s a succession plan. What’s going to happen when the person with the initial vision moves on? Who’s responsible for recruiting a new leader and how will it happen? Who will keep the organization running in the interim? The more forethought the board has put into this, the more likely it is that the disruption inherent in such transitions will be minimal.
Make sure there are no surprises. Absent extenuating circumstances, we expect to be informed about the departure of a chief executive very soon after staff and before the public. Ditto for information about a successful recruitment. This is not the kind of news funders should hear second-hand.
Give us a chance to weigh in. Funders have a lot to contribute when a search gets underway. We don’t just know the organization itself, but we see how it fits into the broader ecosystem of similar organizations. On good days, we also might have some smart things to say about where the field is going, or could go. This is valuable for developing a position description. Even better, with a field-wide view, we know some of the rising stars who might be ready to stretch into a leadership role.
Let us see how the leadership team is stepping up. Many of the best organizations depend on a leadership team, not just a single person, to set and maintain a strategic direction. It’s often during times of leadership transition that we get a picture of how well the folks who are in charge of operations, finance, and other key functions work, individually and as a team.
Offer mutual commitment. Both parties to the funder-grantee relationship can, if they choose, reduce the uncertainty by making commitments that transcend a specific hiring decision. The nonprofit’s board, for example, can articulate the strategic questions they want any incoming leader to think through. This gives us confidence that the board is taking its role seriously, an indicator of a healthy institution. For our part, we are sometimes able to arrange the timing of grant decisions and the duration of funding so that a new chief executive has some time to settle in before facing a new round of fundraising. (The earlier we know about pending transitions, the easier it is for us to do this.) Occasionally, we can also commit new, just-in-time money for the leadership search itself, or for a strategic planning process that might prove valuable to an organization’s new head.
Like all funders, we have a big stake in the health, productivity, and success of the organizations we’re able to support—regardless of who is at the helm. A leadership transition can be a time for us to gain even more confidence that we’ve placed a smart bet.
In the world of global development, a remarkable amount of intellectual energy is being expended trying to influence the post-2015 development agenda, the set of goals to be agreed by the member states of the United Nations in September 2015. Those goals are seen as important because their predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals, affected how donors and national governments allocated money. They also stimulated policy change at national level. For instance, governments in East Africa eliminated school fees to dramatically increase primary school enrollment. So a lot of people are paying attention because they think a lot of more powerful people will pay attention.
Deliberations leading up to the final agreement of a post-2015 framework, a classic “action-forcing event,” have focused attention on truly fundamental questions: Should international goals apply to all countries, rich and poor? How can the perspectives of resource-poor countries and people be reflected in the goals? How can social and economic development aims be reconciled with environmental limits? What matters more: the right orientation in health, education and agriculture, or governments that can effectively respond to citizens’ needs and wants? What’s the relationship between how we collect data and how we design inclusive social policy? How much should donor nations shoulder the responsibility for paying to progress toward ambitious targets?
It’s a rich discussion about poverty and inequality, problems and solutions. It is also a surprisingly inclusive discussion, informed by many local and national consultations, public opinion polling, and innovative work by Southern think tanks. To get a flavor for the quantity and quality of the commentary, just tune in to the Overseas Development Institute’s Post2015.org website, which serves as a hub for a grand (and not bland) conversation.
That international conversation – in meetings, blogs, research papers, politicians’ speeches and more – has been novel not just in its depth and breadth, but also in the extent to which people interested in one set of issues have listened to others. Everyone paying attention to the construction of the post-2015 development agenda knows there will be tradeoffs and negotiations; we all are conscious that broad-based coalitions will gain more purchase than single-issue advocates. As a consequence, we all have an incentive to listen to and understand what people with different agendas and perspectives are saying. We’re even seeing a growing appreciation of how different issues – health, water, climate – interact with each other.
This is why I’m starting to worry about post-post-2015. Once the goals are agreed, there will be a tremendous temptation to return to whatever silos we crawled out of. Health people may stop paying attention to gender or inequality people, those working on reducing poverty may cease being interested in climate change, and progress toward defining problems shared across all countries may fade away. This would be a major loss.
Tell me: Is there a way to keep the dynamic post-2015 conversation going in the post-post-2015 era?
Not long ago, during a discussion about progress for girls and women around the world over the past twenty years, I found myself doodling on a napkin. The conversation was organized around the twelve areas of action articulated in the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China. Since I have trouble keeping twelve things in my head at once, I was doodling to see if I could make some sense by lumping, sorting and sequencing the items:
women and poverty
education and training of women
women and health
violence against women
women and armed conflict
women and the economy
women in power and decision-making
institutional mechanism for the advancement of women
human rights of women
women and the media
women and the environment
Pen in hand, I first tried to rank these in order of importance. But that was plainly impossible. How could it be more important to be healthy than to lead a life free of poverty? Is it more important to take part in political life or to have access to the media? These are all important in fundamental ways, and intertwined.
Ah, intertwined. I tried a Venn diagram, the refuge of the “everything’s connected” school of understanding the world. I tried to depict the areas where, for example, the incidence of poverty among women intersects with education, health, and economic opportunity. With a few pen strokes I had an impressively tangled set of overlapping bubbles, but no clarity at all.
Time for a new napkin. The next attempt was to array them along some imaginary axis of “progress achieved.” We’ve made more progress in ensuring equality of educational opportunities than in protecting girls and women from violence, for example, so maybe I could find some pattern that way.
That’s when I found myself drawing two axes to represent two distinct dimensions: On the x-axis, the degree to which progress depends on changing social norms; on the y-axis, the degree to which progress depends on changing the economic order. This sounds abstract, but bear with me and you might see an interesting pattern emerge.
Think about gender parity in primary school enrollment, for example. The tremendous gains we’ve seen over the past two decades have not been easy, and it’s still an uphill battle to make sure girls make it through primary school and into secondary school. But as economies have become less dependent on family labor on farms, sending young children to school is not fundamentally disruptive to the social or economic order. So, notionally, let’s start with primary education plotted on the part of the graph closest to the origin. For the heck of it, let’s put gender parity in secondary education a little further along the “change in social norms” axis and a step or two up along the “change in economic order” axis, because with secondary education women are better able to compete in the labor market.
Now, where to put preventing gender-based violence? That’s a heavier lift, and requires a recalibration of power and vulnerability within society, and particularly within households, where much of the violence occurs. While there are economic aspects to violence—women whose movement is restricted have less ability to work outside the home—progress requires more of a change in social norms than in productive opportunities that are afforded women. So let’s put it further along the “change in social norms” axis.
One more: women and the economy. More specifically, how about something really tough: opening up traditionally male occupations to women. What constitutes “women’s work” and “men’s work” is among the most deeply held beliefs in any culture, so we’ve got to put that toward the extreme end of “requires a change in social norms.” And “men’s work” is almost invariably better paid, so a breakthrough on occupational segregation by gender requires major changes in the economic order in a society—changes that mean women are not cast in the role of the reserve labor force, the invisible producers. So I’d put that way up in the far right-hand corner of my diagram: difficult in both dimensions.
This is by no means a perfect framework for understanding why some aspects of women’s lives and livelihoods progress faster than others. But it helps me think about what some of the barriers to progress are. And it inspires me to work harder, with Data2X, the WORLD Policy Analysis Center, WIEGO, and other partners, to measure just how far we have to go, and how fast we’re making gains.
Grant makers are very good at asking questions. We ask prospective grantees about everything from theories of change to potential leadership transitions to progress indicators. And while we’re tireless in expressing curiosity about grantees’ work, we do not spare ourselves from interrogation. We continuously ask ourselves and our colleagues: Why these priorities? Is this the right strategy? The right set of tactics? Could we get more impact if we allocated dollars differently?
Healthy as all this questioning is, I have to admit: Sometimes I find it exhausting. After all, this isn’t just an academic exercise. Our job is to make grants and to learn from them so we make better grants the next time around. Somehow, we have to get from questions to actions.
That’s why I’ve started to think about grants as ways to test hypotheses—statements of our belief that money spent in a particular way will yield a particular result. Scientists use hypotheses to translate big questions into discrete experiments, and to focus their attention on whether what happens is what they expected to happen or something else entirely. If grant makers think in terms of hypotheses, it permits us to ponder without becoming paralyzed.
If you’re still with me: Each grant represents an educated guess. Only through observing how the grant plays out do we figure out if our guess was mostly right or mostly wrong. The guesswork is unavoidable because we operate within a context of tremendous complexity and uncertainty. We don’t know, for example, whether the political and economic environment is going to be friendly to what we’re trying to achieve. We don’t know what combination of building evidence, supporting advocacy at elite or grassroots levels, supporting innovative organizations, and funding demonstrations activities is going to result in meaningful progress.
So we make our educated guesses, and we observe.
Thinking about a grant as a hypothesis has helped me identify what we should be trying to observe and how we’re going to learn. To test a hypothesis, you have to look for both the evidence that confirms your beliefs and the evidence that might challenge them. That second part—looking for the things that will prove you wrong—is the hardest. But it’s also the most important, and the most informative. We should always try to disprove our own hypotheses, so that we learn whether our strategies were, in fact, good ones.
Let me take one example: We’ve made a series of grants to help ensure experts from the Global South have a hand in setting the post-2015 agenda—defining the international development goals that the member states of the United Nations are expected to adopt in September 2015, as a successor to the Millennium Development Goals. The hypothesis underlying those grants was that participation of public intellectuals from Africa, Asia and Latin America would help ensure that the goals are better informed by on-the-ground realities, are more reflective of the priorities of low-income countries, and are seen as having greater legitimacy.
We might well be wrong. It’s possible that scholars from southern think tanks and heads of non-governmental organizations in Dar es Salaam or Kathmandu are no more in touch with on-the-ground realities than people sitting on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C. It’s also possible that funding people to attend meetings and undertake research, or to write blog posts and op-eds, makes their ideas more visible but doesn’t change the fraught negotiations at the United Nations.
So as we watch these grants unfold, we’re not just looking for the evidence—although there is plenty of it—about the broad and diverse “conversation” about the post-2015 development agenda, some of which has resulted from our funding. We also are training a skeptical eye on that evidence, and questioning whether any real difference is resulting from all the input. We are pushing ourselves to challenge our own hypothesis. What we learn will help us decide whether to make future grants to increase the influence of southern civil society organizations on international policy, and how to best structure them.
There’s one other great benefit of thinking about grants as testing hypotheses. In science, no experiment fails if you’re able to learn something from it. People in our line of work could take a lesson from that.
Let’s hear it for the teens! With a little help from a few grownups, the teenagers of America seem to be figuring out how to keep their futures on track—or at least keep them from going off the rails by having a baby when they should be doing homework.
The National Center for Health Statistics just released new data showing that the number of births to girls 15-19 years old is the lowest it’s been since 1933, the year the government started tracking it. In 2013 alone, both the number and the rate of teen births dropped by an astounding 10 percent. This means that since the peak year for teen childbearing in the 1970s, the rate of teen pregnancy has plummeted by 57 percent. The best news is for the high school-age kids; among girls ages 15-17, there’s been a 68 percent drop in the pregnancy rate.
When a major social problem starts melting away, you’ve got to ask what’s going on—and how we can keep the momentum going.
One side effect of the Great Recession that began in 2007 was a drop in the overall birth rate, but that doesn’t come close to explaining these numbers. Our friends at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy have sliced and diced the data, looked at the research, and come up with a handful of reasons for the dramatic improvement:
Better birth control. While still nowhere near as popular among young people as the pill, teens are increasingly choosing long-acting contraceptive methods like IUDs and implants. No muss, no fuss, no babies.
Fewer teen moms beget fewer teen moms. With the teen birth rate declining steadily since the 1990s, fewer of today’s teens have mothers who got pregnant at a young age. This is what a virtuous cycle looks like.
Medicaid pays. For 18- and 19-year-old women, Medicaid has covered family planning services in 26 states since the 1990s. In the U.S., as around the world, making family planning affordable to all pays off.
Media messages. Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant have shown their huge audiences how hard it is to have a baby when you’re young. Combined with factual, no-nonsense information about sex and contraception, most of today’s teens are no longer in the dark.
Teenage boys. You wouldn’t think teenage boys would be on the list of explanations for a drop in teen pregnancy, but boys and young men have been having less sex and using more condoms. Prevention of HIV/AIDS is having broad benefits.
If these are the ingredients that go into preventing teen pregnancies, then we know what to do. In particular, we need to make sure that teens—both boys and girls—have the information they need to make choices about whether to have sex and how to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. And we need to ensure that reproductive health services are affordable, convenient, and focused on the needs of young people. While the kids are busy with their homework, that’s the assignment we’re working on.
Willa Friedman has got me thinking about Hippocrates. In a recent blog post at the Center for Global Development, she asks a question we’ve probably all wondered about: in the face of poverty and suffering, “isn’t doing something better than doing nothing?” Willa cites two recent studies demonstrating that aid projects intended to alleviate poverty instead led to an increase in violence. Yes, sometimes, despite the best of intentions, aid does harm.
So this made me wonder if we need some version of the Hippocratic Oath, the credo that newly minted physicians recite, which reminds them to wield a doctor’s power and influence with humility and care.
While the Hippocratic Oath is well known for its injunction, “First, do no harm,” there’s more to it. The modern interpretation of the oath speaks of the physician’s solemn responsibility to protect the privacy of patients, to practice the art as well as the science of medicine, and to place patients’ needs above financial gain or social status.
What would the equivalent of a Hippocratic Oath look like for those working in international development? Surely we would need something about tempering enthusiasm for novelty and innovation with a respect for hard-won lessons of the past. Plus a commitment to leave an honest record of what succeeded and what failed, even at the risk of revealing one’s own hubris, inexperience, or misjudgment. We’d have to commit to balancing data and expert knowledge with empathy, observation, and simply asking questions of the people we hope to help—and then actually listening to the answers. Perhaps we’d have to foreswear using photographs that evoke pity, particularly for the purposes of fundraising. Maybe we’d have to toss in a variant of the Golden Rule: Don’t do unto those in other countries what we wouldn’t want them doing unto us. And, of course, do no harm.
International development doesn’t have its roots in a priesthood of physician-healers, and Hippocrates would probably have a tough time understanding the academic disciplines of international relations or development economics. But he just might see the value in thinking about the obligations of a profession like ours. What oath should we pledge when we bring money, scientific knowledge, and promises into the lives of poor people who live far away from us, imagining we can solve their problems?
“Scale up” is one of those terms that almost everyone uses and very few people can define. Sure, “scale up” means trying to make some small success much larger—taking a program from neighborhood-scale to country-scale or bigger, for example. But, as it’s used (and over-used) in the development field, “scale up” applies to everything from getting soap to more people through private sellers to replicating a new way to pay teachers, tried in a few demonstration schools, introduced in all government schools.
Sometimes we’re just talking about increasing the amount of spending, and other times “scale up” refers to expanding activities or even impact. Not quite the same thing.
People who talk about scaling up are rarely clear about the path to expanding coverage or impact. Is it through the use of technology, which dramatically reduces the marginal cost of reaching ever-larger populations? Or through the market, where the dynamics of supply and demand drive expanded availability of goods or services? Or through public or non-profit networks, where mandates from the top can, in theory, lead to new practices being rapidly adopted in multiple communities. These are, of course, radically different ways to go from small to big. None of them follows a linear “innovate, prove, scale” path.
But “scale-up” has become a one-size-fits-all phrase, a verbal tic that populates papers and speeches; it’s the thing that motivates all sorts of investments in both new ideas and evaluation: why bother, if not to eventually serve millions? Yet getting from here to there is left in a black box. Truthfully, every time I hear the phrase “going to scale” I wonder if the people talking know themselves what they are trying to say.
That’s why I’ve been intrigued to hear our friends out here in Silicon Valley use their own jargon: “scale up,” “scale out,” and “scale deep.” All refer to the amount and efficiency of data storage, but there’s a special vocabulary that differentiates among different ways to design more storage capacity into computer networks. I wonder if it would help the development field to coin some variants of “scale up” that distinguish what and how more people are being reached. Would it force some conceptual discipline on this sloppy space, or just scale up the use of development jargon?
One thing you can count on at the Hewlett Foundation is our affection for data, but here’s a little-known secret: even more than numbers, we love stories. In the Global Development and Population Program we make bunches of grants to add to the amount, quality, and availability of data about where a government’s money comes from, how it’s spent, and whether people end up better or worse off for having spent it. We promote evaluation and metrics. Heck, it’s right there in the Foundation’s new tagline: we’re “helping people lead measurably better lives.” Alongside our belief in the value of quantitative information, though, we’re cultivating an increased appreciation for storytelling. And it’s paying off.
I’m not talking about random, tug-at-your-heart-strings anecdotes. I’m talking about finding ways to elevate and put into context stories people tell about their own experience. It’s a core part of the notion that we can focus resources so that people’s own voices can be heard, from within their own communities to distant capitals. And by being heard, be understood and help lead to positive change.
Let me give just a few examples. In our grants to protect reproductive health and rights in the U.S., we’re following closely the “provoice” work that Exhale is doing to find and tell the stories of women who have had abortions. One in every three American women will have an abortion in her lifetime, but because of stigma few have the chance to talk about the often complicated thoughts and feelings that accompanied their decision to terminate a pregnancy. The women who’ve participated in Exhale’s abortion storytelling project do have that chance. They report a greater sense of wellbeing and acceptance; those who’ve heard or read the stories are far more likely to empathize more and judge less, regardless of whether they change their views on abortion.
We also admire the partnership that the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy has developed with MTV to connect viewers of 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom to accurate information about birth control. These reality TV shows, showing the truth of what girls’ and boys’ lives are like when they become responsible for a baby, are a radical departure from any standard approach to educating young people about the risks of early and unprotected sex. They aren’t necessarily intended to be educational at all, which is probably what makes them work. Study after study has found that these shows don’t just grab viewers’ attention; they also make it more likely that young viewers will have important conversations with their parents, and end up with healthier attitudes about sex. Remarkably, one recent study estimates that up to a third of the impressive drop in teen pregnancy in the U.S. can be attributed to changes in behavior resulting from watching 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom.
We’re supporting creative work with storytelling overseas, too. Global Giving, a partner in Feedback Labs, has refined its methods of collecting hundreds of stories from people affected by aid projects, and then analyzing those stories so non-governmental organizations (NGOs) know what community members are saying about what they need and whether they’re getting it. One interesting feature of that work is that it doesn’t start with the NGO’s perspective— “So, how do you feel about me?”—but instead starts from the individual’s viewpoint— “What problems do you have, and who can you turn to for help?” (Their Storytelling Tool is available for anyone to use.)
Great stories also are at the forefront in the work that Well Told Story does in Kenya. WTS produces Shujaaz, a wildly popular radio show and comic book series, written in street-slang. Focused first on entertaining, young Kenyan artists who write and produce Shujaaz are telling the story of fictional characters struggling to succeed at school, maintain friendships, make a living and understand what the powers that be are up to. Along the way, while subtly dispensing information and advice, Shujaaz has become one of the most widely read publications in the country, capturing not one but two Emmys.
Exciting as the storytelling work is now, I’m guessing there’s even more interesting stuff ahead. I think there’s more to learn about how storytelling can change people’s sense of their ability to affect the conditions of their lives; and how storytelling can be paired with traditional data to paint a full picture of on-the- ground realities for policy makers. I’m guessing, too, that we’re going to start seeing opportunities for computer-enabled storytelling to capture information from people in ways that cannot be done in a survey format. (Think what commercial game developers already can know about how gamers think through problems.) And I’m sure that as these and other ideas develop, the Global Development and Population Program will be closely following the story.
Social science researchers in U.S. universities who are working on topics in global development and want to see their work applied are in a pickle. Here are just a few of the many reasons why: It’s hard to do fancy empirical work when the underlying data are of suspect quality. If scholars describe their work in ways non-specialists can understand, which is essential for sharing knowledge with those who can use it, peers may be unimpressed and question the researchers' rigor. If academics take time to learn about real-world policy and program implementation challenges—particularly the time needed for serious field work in another country—that’s time they’re not spending honing their methodologies and writing new papers, the sine qua non of a successful academic career. Researchers may also discover that those real-world challenges are better addressed by basic analytic exercises and intelligent perseverance than by anything fancy (or publishable).
Social scientists who just want to hunker down and do their research, regardless of the real-world utility in the near term, are also in a pickle. In addition to the dreaded accusation of doing “research for its own sake,” they may find that funders are increasingly pushing for more applied, or at least more applicable, work, as well as for collaborations with in-country partners. At a minimum this complicates the task of raising money, and either leads to more creative storytelling about relevance and teamwork, or diverts scholars away from doing the Big Think they’re trained to do.
And many funders, like those of us in the Global Development and Population Program, are also in a pickle. We respect the conceptual and empirical rigor that academics bring. We understand that the breadth and depth of research expertise in the U.S. is without parallel. We know research is a process of accumulated knowledge over many years. And we know the importance of creating opportunities for the next generation of researchers. But we’re charged with making the world a better place—expanding choices for women, particularly those in the poorest places, and amplifying the voices of citizens. Our research grants are motivated by the potential that the findings will be useful, not in an abstract way but in a sooner-rather-than-later sort of way. In the end, it’s disappointing when the research question ends up being detached from real-world problems, when those who know the context best are excluded, when progress on a research project is jeopardized by in-house politics, when findings are communicated in ways that few can understand, or when a study is delayed, sometimes by years. (Truthfully, sometimes just the routine progress reports from universities are delayed by years!)
So we’re in a situation in which some researchers who do great applied work are unlikely to advance in their careers, others have trouble getting support for their more theoretical contributions, and funders are often perplexed about when and how to work with academics. For our part, as I look at our portfolio, I think we’ve patched together a few fixes: First, we often fund research within think tanks, which are staffed with strong researchers who have chosen a different, more policy-oriented path. Second, we support university-based researchers who, because of affiliations outside of their home institution and their own individual drive, have achieved significant policy traction in their work and have an appetite for more. Third, we have at times departed from an “outcome focus” in the traditional sense and sought to build or strengthen a field, such as economic demography within the Population and Poverty Initiative. Field-building demands more in the way of theoretical and methodological advances, and less in terms of findings that can be applied. In other words, it suits academics. This is what we’ve come to more through trial-and-error than grand theory.
We currently are thinking through how to advance policy making that is well informed by both theory and empirical evidence. That’s a far-reaching agenda, but in the process I’m hoping we will develop a coherent view about the role —if any —universities can realistically play in generating and communicating policy relevant research. I’m guessing others have thought long and hard about this, and I’d welcome your comments on this post.