In his three-minute TED Talk, Derek Sivers tells us that a movement is made not by charismatic leaders but rather by the first followers. It is the people who are alert to a new idea, who are inspired to leave their comfortable routine, and who adopt and adapt an innovation—these are the movement makers.
If that’s true—and I think it is—then the makers of the movement for greater accountability and more involvement by parents in education are people like Baela Raza Jamil, Rakesh Rajani, Sara Ruto, John Mugo, Abdou Fall, Boureima Allaye Touré, Massaman Sinaba, Modupe Adefeso-Olateju, Felipe Hevia and many others. They are the ones who saw the potential in the pioneering efforts of India’s ASER Centre to set a learning-focused agenda in both the classroom and in the Cabinet. And they have put in the hard work to find out—along with parents and teachers—whether kids are able to read and do math at grade level. The citizen-led learning assessments are now helping to shape the debate about education access and quality in Pakistan, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Senegal, Mali, Nigeria, and Mexico. And the movement they are making is fascinating, in part because it is so varied.
Take Mexico, for instance, which on first glance isn’t much like India at all: Higher income, higher enrollment rates in both primary and secondary school, and participants in the PISA exam, the most widely known international test of learning. Surely the Mexican education system doesn’t need parents checking up on whether the many, many pesos spent—one out of every five collected in taxes goes to education—are turning into learning.
On closer inspection, however, the case for citizen-led assessments becomes clearer. Many observers of the Mexican education system see the need for major reforms oriented toward better outcomes from the earliest grades. Teacher strikes, underachievement on PISA, and wide disparities in access to and quality of education from state to state and village to village suggest that Mexico’s future economic growth and social development are handicapped by shortcomings in education. Conversations at the local and national levels have to be reoriented to focus less on the inputs, like teacher pay, and more on what it all adds up to.
Thinking about how to start that conversation, Felipe Hevia, a member of the faculty of Mexico’s Center for Research and Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology, traveled to India in 2013 to see for himself how household assessments were conducted and what difference they can make. What he saw was intriguing: volunteers going door to door, testing children in their homes on their reading and math skills—an activity that shows parents the child’s abilities and gaps in her or his learning, and that produces data that can be aggregated across a community, district, or state to give a full picture of areas of achievement and deficit.
Felipe, a researcher who specializes in issues of government accountability and citizen engagement, saw the potential: when information like this is generated by citizens and then made visible through advocacy groups and the media, it can shine a light on problems that otherwise would go unseen. And it might just provoke some new solution-finding. He also found a community of practice, the PAL Network, ready to welcome him and provide inspiration and practical advice along the way. The Mediciόn Independiente de Aprendizaje (or Independent Measurement of Learning) initiative, known as MIA, was born in the state of Veracruz and it is now poised to expand to four additional states.
MIA, embedded within the movement to expand citizen-led learning assessments, is also part of a larger movement seeking to open up the Mexican public sector to greater scrutiny and to stimulate shared problem-solving between citizens and government officials. In the education sector, for instance, the policy research group IMCO runs Mejora tu Escuela, which permits parents to see test scores and other characteristics from individual schools. FUNDAR and many other groups advocate for open budgets and greater transparency in public agencies. Mexico Evalua conducts studies of public sector performance, including those that have revealed the misuse of public funds in education. Sonora Ciudadana organizes citizens to understand local problems in health services and education, and helps them find ways to press their case with public authorities who should be accountable. It also helps those in the media figure out how to use current legal frameworks to access information for investigative journalism. Several groups, including Equis Justicia para las Mujeres, use tools like freedom of information requests and social audits to monitor state compliance with gender equity commitments. Each of these, along with MIA and many other efforts in Mexico, have both learned from and contributed to transparency and accountability efforts outside of Mexico’s borders. And together they are strengthening the relationship between government and citizens, and protecting against infringements on citizens right to know and to be heard.
Funders cannot make movements. All we can do is give the space for movements to emerge: We can make it easier for people in one country to learn about what’s going on in another, and offer modest resources for people committed to social change to try-fail-learn-fix. We can encourage both the innovation and the adaptation. And we can ourselves be willing to follow the leader. In the case of both the citizen-led learning assessments and the wider field of transparency and accountability, it’s a rewarding role to play.
Nothing to be afraid of. (Photo Credit: Flickr User Jonathan, licensed under CC BY 2.0)
People who work in philanthropy are often are urged to “take more risks,” but I think better advice would be to try to recognize how few risks we face—and run with it. While we don’t always take full advantage of the opportunity, many grantmakers can take three types of actions that are risky for government agencies that are directly accountable to the taxpayers and (hopefully) closely watched by the media, and for those in the for-profit sector who have a duty to shareholders. These three things are: abandoning the old for new (and maybe better) ideas, owning failure, and letting our contributions go unrecognized.
A foundation’s ability to help start up something new and untested is, I think, what most people think of as risk taking in the philanthropic sector. Many other types of funders find it extremely difficult to deviate from conventional ways of doing business, even if everyone agrees that the status quo isn’t quite working. Too many political and institutional hurdles prevent dollars from being moved from well-established programs to develop and test a new idea. And the risk-aversion of many funders plays out in the behavior of organizations they support: it can be a death-defying act for the leader of a non-profit organization to abandon a line of work that attracts dollars for one that, while promising, lacks a secure financial base.
Nowhere is this clearer than when we’re helping a new organization trying to get off the ground. Take our support to the African Center for Economic Transformation, for example. ACET was set up in 2008 as a regional think tank, with a plan to generate world-class research and provide advice to reform-minded African leaders. It was a new institution, trying a novel blend of scholarship and tailored support to tackle policy challenges—things like public sector reform, securing land tenure and easing access to land, and negotiations with investors in extractive industries. Many agencies that fund studies about African social and economic policy were interested and saw the potential value of African leadership on policy research. But they all found reasons not to divert resources from the “usual suspects,” primarily Northern think tanks and universities.
There were lots of questions: Would it be seen as legitimate? Would the leader, K.Y. Amoako, be able to attract high-caliber colleagues to Accra, Ghana? Would the research put new options on the table?
The only way to know was to try, and the only way to try was to provide unrestricted institutional support over several years. So we did. And in this case, it’s paid off. Using the start-up funds from the Hewlett Foundation and a few others, ACET proved itself, and answered all of those questions with a resounding yes. Now, current and future funders can invest in the work of an organization that has a solid track record of producing high quality work and having impact in complex African policy contexts. We took a calculated risk so that others would have a safer bet to make later on.
Some of the time, though, the new ideas don’t work out. Though, let’s face it, a lot of old, “we’ve always done it this way” ideas don’t work, either. The difference between the foundation world and more fraught environments, where politicians or investors are hovering around, is not that we can fail more. It’s that when we fail we can, if we choose, be honest and open about what went wrong, without facing significant negative consequences.
The latitude to reveal failure is not a given in a foundation; it comes from a Board and President who understand that real-world change is slow, difficult, and reversible, and who take a measure of pride in a reputation for candor and learning. What this means for those of us making the grants and evaluating their effectiveness is that we can look without blinders at whether the assumptions underpinning our strategies are wrong; and we can permit ourselves to ask hard questions about the current performance of organizations we’ve supported for a long time. These are not easy tasks, technically or psychologically, and you can’t tackle them every day without driving yourself into a state of paralysis. But it’s a gift to any professional to be able to reflect, talk, and write about the uncertainties that are intrinsic to our work: to doubt, to be curious and to learn. What this means for the fields in which we work is that we’re sometimes able to save others the trouble (and risk) of making the same mistakes we have.
We also are protected from the danger that our good works won’t be recognized. That is, we can be a quiet partner if that’s what’s needed. Foundations generally don’t face any risk at all if our biggest successes are not attributed to us. No amount of praise, no matter how well deserved, will change the size of our endowment. Again, this is very different than funders who depend on their reputation as good stewards of public dollars, and who are competing with other agencies. And it’s certainly different than leaders of non-profit organizations, who feel they must demonstrate to their supporters that they are having an outsized impact if they’re going to get them to pull out their checkbook once more.
In fact, I’ve come to see that much of the impact we’re seeking can only come if others—often those who have more resources but work in politically complicated environments—can cherry-pick winning ideas, make sizeable investments, and call them their own. As Harry Truman famously said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” It is a motto for foundations to live by.
Having worked in other types of organizations, where the choices were often limited less by resources than by risk-aversion, I know a foundation can be a special sort of place. I don’t think we always take full advantage—perhaps because it’s hard for people to realize how free they really are—but one measure of our success should be how much we use our unusual perch to make the world a safer place for others.
Think tanks should recruit and retain talented women as policy researchers and in other roles for many principled reasons, from basic fairness to the value of diverse perspectives. They should also do it for the most self-interested of reasons: think tanks that provide opportunities for women researchers will have more influence within the policy community.
As more women are in decision making positions, policy researchers of the same gender have greater opportunities for influence. I believe women in think tanks can communicate with women who are elected representatives, political appointees and government officials more effectively than men can. In part, this is because of gender-specific ways of speaking and listening. In part, it is because professional women, who have faced similar challenges, can establish rapport and a relationship of trust more easily. It is also because in their research, women are more likely than men to take into consideration issues like the care economy and multi-generational impacts of policy, which have a particular salience to women, regardless of career trajectory.
Does this mean that women researchers cannot communicate with or influence men in positions of political power, or that men will not be listened to by women leaders? Of course not. But gender is a powerful dimension of individuals’ identity, and a tremendous amount of a think tanks’ influence derives from personal connections and credibility. As national and subnational governments move closer to gender balance in both political and technical cadres, think tanks should at a minimum be keeping up with this trend – and ideally should be showing the way. Those that do will see their stature grow.
Strategies for Improving Women’s Representation in Think Tanks
Once think tank boards and directors understand the value of recruiting and women as scholars and in other senior positions, they have to take intentional actions, some of which can be borrowed from academic settings that are seeking ways to provide opportunities for talented women. These include, for example:
Creating and making visible a nondiscrimination policy, committing to fair recruitment and pay equity.
Identifying women who are promising junior researchers, such as research assistants, and investing in educational and other professional development opportunities.
Recruiting women researchers who may be working in related fields, rather than in traditional economics or political science tracks.
Recruiting women who have been engaged in political life or as practitioners – for example, from multilateral development banks – as “policy fellows” or in a similar position.
Providing generous parental leave benefits.
Stopping the promotion “clock” during periods of parental leave.
Developing policies for flextime and telecommuting.
Fostering an inclusive intellectual culture – for instance, by seeking gender balance in invitees to speak at public events.
I’m sure others have ideas about steps that think tanks can take to improve staff gender balance, and I hope they come to light in subsequent blog posts. The important starting point, though, is to understand that when institutions are able to speak with diverse voices, and can undertake research inspired by a variety of life experiences and interests, they are – in the end – going to make the biggest difference.
Here’s a phrase no grantee likes to hear: “Your program officer is leaving the foundation.” Immediately, the worry starts. Does this mean they’ll stop funding me? Will my proposal be hung up in limbo until a new program officer is assigned? Will they find someone who supports my work? Will the new person really understand me like [insert name of beloved (and now former) program officer]? Will I be able to build a new relationship?
From what I’ve seen, there’s good reason to worry a little, and no reason to worry a lot.
Yes, relationships matter and there will be time and effort required on both sides to establish a new one. But we have quite a bit of experience with program officer transitions and, well, plus ça change.
At the Hewlett Foundation, all program officers and program directors are limited to one eight-year term, so in addition to the typical career transitions—a family move, a return to school for graduate studies, the offer of an extraordinary professional opportunity—we have more planned transitions than most organizations. And we have built some practices over the years to mitigate risk (and hopefully reassure the anxious) on all sides.
First, we work within a strategic framework. While relationships are important aspects of grant making, they do not trump strategy. For each of the areas in which we work, we have an explicit strategy, and each grant is expected to be clearly linked to one or more parts of it. That connection protects grantees from capricious or relationship-based changes, and grantees are well-advised to understand how their work fits into our larger picture—in part so that they can help orient an incoming program officer who may not immediately see the link.
Second, we collaborate. Several foundation staff have responsibilities related to each grant, and know details about both its history and the current work. In particular, each program officer works closely with a program associate, who understands the nature of the relationship with the grantee and can maintain continuity. During the year before a planned transition, program associates are called upon even more than usual to follow the conversations between the outgoing program officer and grantees, so that fresh, nuanced information can be conveyed to incoming staff. Similarly, our colleagues in the Grants Management Department know the ins-and-outs of the grants — after all, they read all the proposals and the reports. And we’ve established a practice of having “proposal buddies,” in which program officers ask one of their peers to review concept notes and proposals, and suggest questions or issues to raise. So while a program officer may be walking out the door, crucial information is held by several of the colleagues they are leaving behind, and the “buddy” can often take on temporary responsibilities for a grant until the outgoing program officer’s successor is hired.
Third, we document. Grant files, which are normally filled with all the required information, constitute the historical record—and are the right place for outgoing program officers to document their assessment of grantee performance and potential. Before they leave, program officers spend many hours making sure that files are up-to-date and as complete as possible.
Fourth, we orient. All this preparation would mean little if an incoming program officer didn’t have time to absorb the information, and get to know grantees and their work. When transitions are planned, we take pains to make sure that a new program officer has relatively few grant decisions to make for about the first six months, giving time for orientation, learning the job and, often, a lot of site visits.
Finally, we communicate. Throughout the leaving, recruiting, and orienting periods, we try hard to let grantees know what’s going on and, especially, who their main point of contact is at the Foundation. We never want grantees to wonder whom to call on if they have a concern or question. Interim arrangements permit us to review and process proposals and reports, get payments out, and take care of the other basics expected of a funder.
Through their path-breaking work and sheer force of personality, some individuals shape whole fields in the most positive ways. Cheikh Mbacké is one of those people. His influence on population research in Africa is deep and long-lasting—and now fully recognized by his peers with the Laureate Award of the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population, which he received at a ceremony earlier this week. He’s been a great friend to the Hewlett Foundation’s Global Development and Population Program and it’s a privilege to take a moment to recognize his contributions.
Here’s a quick but incomplete summary of Cheikh’s career: Born and raised in Nioro, Senegal, Cheikh earned a bachelor's degree in statistics from the Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques in Paris, a master's degree in demography from the Institut de Formation et de Recherche Démographique in Yaoundé, Cameroon, and a doctoral degree in demography from the University of Pennsylvania.
As a young researcher, Cheikh charted new data collection paths from the start. Early in his career, he worked on the first Senegalese census and on a pilot survey of nomadic peoples in Mauritania as part of the first Mauritanian census. This was the Wild West (Africa) of demography. He then joined the Center for Applied Studies and Research on Population and Development at the Sahel Institute in Bamako, Mali, where he led the training division and, many report, was also the Center’s most productive researcher. He helped to create the first demographic surveillance sites in Africa – sites that gather information over time on the same people, permitting analyses that no cross-sectional surveys ever can.
Cheikh then joined the Rockefeller Foundation as senior scientist in the Population Sciences division, and then the foundation’s representative for Africa, using his ability as a funder to support the expansion of demographic training and surveillance sites. Later, he became a vice president at Rockefeller, a position he held until the mid-2000s when he decided that he wanted to return both to Senegal and to the field of study that he loves.
Since 2006, Cheikh has been a senior advisor to the Hewlett Foundation, helping us improve the training of African population scientists and increase the availability of population and reproductive health data. He’s been our colleague in strategy development, our eyes and ears in the field, and a source of encouragement and guidance to people in organizations we support to carry out the crucial work of data collection, analysis, and demographic training.
The impact of his work is legion. Almost every African demographer, and many population scientists from other regions, can trace a pivotal moment in their own careers to advice, support, ideas, and constructive critique offered by Cheikh Mbacké. As a key advisor to us over many years, and through his earlier work at Rockefeller, Cheikh has influenced important funding decisions with his knowledge and imagination; hundreds of researchers and trainees have benefited, and key institutions have become stronger.
Through his service on several institutional boards, Cheikh has helped to ensure that there are homes in Africa for talented researchers who are committed to excellence. He has enabled many other African population scientists to excel in their own work, and to build key institutions like the INDEPTH network of demographic surveillance sites, the African Population and Health Research Center, and the Institut Supérieur des Sciences de la Population in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
The letter nominating him for the award sums it up: “Cheikh Mbacké is, without doubt, the scientist who has done the most to create and sustain an African population research community . . . [H]e has been the key to the renewed commitment and growth of African population training institutes, a legacy that will continue to produce dividends for generations to come.”
But a mere accouting of his work tells only part of the story. Cheikh is a man who not only holds himself to high scientific standards, but also to the highest standards of respect and good will in every interaction, every relationship. Each day, he teaches a master class in how to demand excellence—just impatiently enough—while maintaining humility and an easy laugh. Again, quoting from the nomination letter: “Cheikh Mbacké is foremost among demographers who have contributed to the explosion of research in the area of policies linking population and health. His triple culture, first African but also European and American, makes him the ideal navigator for linking population researchers of multiple cultures, both Anglophone and Francophone, too often separated by linguistic barriers. Perhaps it is this triple culture which makes him so very attentive to those he meets, so constructive in his opinions and evaluations. Surely, his attentiveness also reflects his own professional rigor, mixed with his very evident humanity, modesty, and sense of humor. However these have come together, they have made Cheikh Mbacké a well-loved and much respected leader.”
We’ve been tremendously lucky to have been able to work with and learn from Cheikh, and look forward to many more opportunities in the years ahead.
After a few fascinating days at the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, I feel as though I've traveled through time to one version of the future. The question is: in the end, will this future actually resemble the past?
There is much about social entrepreneurship—at least the slice I had the opportunity to glimpse—that feels fresh, novel, promising. Even inspiring. Social entrepreneurs are tackling problems ranging from poor sanitation to youth unemployment in new ways that often blend commercial and social aims, sometimes taking advantage of a technological advance to lower the cost of information or service delivery. The One Acre Fund, for example, offers smallholder farmers in African countries a package of loans for fertilizer and other inputs, along with help so they can make best use of the inputs and get the highest price for their improved yield. The results are impressive: increased income and better nutrition for the farmer and her family; and a rapidly expanding business that is partially self-financing.
At the Skoll Forum, I found a high-energy community of people who are passionate about their ideas and the potential to make the world a better place. They speak about prove-to-scale models, disruption, innovation, transformation, and investing in impact—a vocabulary that invokes a sunny future.
But will that future be darkened by the long shadow of the past? The field of international development is, as any observer can tell you, replete with efforts by well-meaning outsiders (particularly development agencies) to take interventions that appear to work in one place and replicate them elsewhere. For decades, development advocates and practitioners packaged up technologies with training of community agents to solve specific agricultural, health, water supply and other problems. Think Green Revolution. Think child survival interventions. Think integrated rural development. Think deworming, microfinance, Millennium Villages. Some have worked, some haven’t, and most have never gotten to a point where the benefits can be sustained after donors’ interest subsides.
Even the most successful international development programs have run into the reality that in the end, solving the big problems of poverty is really hard. It’s about dealing with huge structural barriers that keep the many from realizing their potential because the few are benefiting from the status quo. It only happens when governments commit to act in the interest of the collective good—partly through direct action and partly by letting markets take off—and people in their own communities bravely work together to make governments do the right thing. Few of the social enterprises I learned about at the Skoll Forum are designed to make that kind of a difference.
Which leads me to wonder: what does social entrepreneurship look like when it grows out of local contexts and deploys new ideas and ways of doing work to empower citizens and affect policy in a big way, around things that really matter? Perhaps it looks like LEARNigeria, the most recent member of the growing family of citizen-led learning assessments, which are based on the pioneering ASER model in India. Initiated by young Nigerians, LEARNigeria is bringing citizens, businesses, and the public sector together to ask hard questions about whether all primary school-age children are learning the basic skills of reading and arithmetic that will set them on a sound foundation for future schooling.
The aim is to provoke a national, policy-level conversation about how to ensure that investments in education—public and private—are serving both the children and the country. Made for Nigeria by Nigerians and started on a shoe-string budget, the effort builds on the collective experience of groups in eight other countries that have used measuring outcome to focus policy attention on what counts.
Courageous people learning from global experience to create fit-for-purpose solutions to big problems affecting their own country. Whether that’s called social entrepreneurship or not, it’s what the future of development could be.
Just for the sake of argument, let’s say there are two kinds of people who advocate for social change: people who are directly affected, aggrieved, involved; and people who are working on behalf of those in that first group. Sarah Brady, for example, worked tirelessly for gun control after her husband James was injured in 1981; she spoke from personal experience, with a passion born of trauma. Many other gun control advocates are consummate professionals who dedicate time and energy to the cause, but who themselves have not been directly touched by gun violence. Two types of people working toward the same goals, sometimes separately and sometimes together. But only one is telling their own story.
In international development, the “working on behalf of” crowd tends to be large and visible. A lot larger and more visible, in fact, than the people who are directly affected by poverty, exclusion, and injustice, but rarely have the resources, time, and political space to create a collective voice. Organizations staffed with advocacy professionals have, for example, been established to make the case that wealthy countries should provide more aid to improve the health of mothers and children, often on a disease-by-disease basis. Others call for better policies to help increase the yield of family farmers or provide access to clean water. There are groups advocating for equitable land rights, gender equality, protection of refugee populations, and many other good causes. Very, very few of these organizations employ, provide training in advocacy, or regularly put a microphone in front of the individuals who are directly affected by the problems they’re working to solve.
Yes, I am talking about organizations that work in the capitals of rich countries, which try to influence bilateral aid agencies. But I’m also talking about advocacy groups that operate at the national level in low-income countries, often supported by international non-governmental organizations; they, too, tend to be more “on behalf of” than “directly affected.” By and large, these organizations are set up to tell someone else’s story.
We support organizations like this, and I’m impressed by the excellent work they do and the positive impact they have. I’ve certainly been in the role of speaking for others at times in my career. I appreciate that advocacy requires more than passion and compelling personal narrative. It takes professional skills to shape viable policy options, and to develop and communicate messages that make sense within the policy community.
But there is something crucial missing—it’s the voice of people who should be setting the agenda for their own better futures, and telling their own story to educate and persuade. To me, the active participation of people who are directly affected by bad policies is essential to the most powerful and sustained kind of advocacy, the kind that will demand the right responses. And it’s just not there often enough.
I don’t know precisely how to amplify the voices of citizens who want their governments to collect revenues fairly and spend them on services that count; nor do I know exactly how to make it possible for women, alone or collectively, to speak truth to power about economic exploitation and the need to ensure that they can control whether and when to bear children.
I do know, though, that it’s worth figuring out how established advocacy organizations can do more to let people tell their own stories. Even more importantly, it’s worth finding ways to support groups of people who are working on solving problems that affect them, and who have a desire and capacity to acquire the skills of advocacy. I’d love to hear how others have done this—we have a lot to learn.
You are (not) here: something we try not to lose sight of. (Image Credit: Hewlett Foundation, adapted from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY SA 3.0)
In the halls of the Hewlett Foundation, you hear people talking about places: how hard it is for artists to find affordable performance space in the Bay Area; the importance of protecting wilderness in the Western United States from commercial development. You hear people talking about policy: debates about the causes and consequences of climate change; why there's reason to hope that Congress will become genuinely functional again one day. And you hear an awful lot about the intersection between place and policy: the ways each state is implementing (or backing away from) the Common Core education standards; the state-level restrictions on the provision of abortion services. In other words, you get a flavor of the complex work my colleagues do every day to improve life in the United States, at this particular moment in the country’s economic, political, and social history. It’s both inspiring and informative to those of us who spend our time working on problems 10,000 miles away from home.
Before joining the Hewlett Foundation in 2011, I spent my professional life working in organizations with "development" in their names (or at least their missions): the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Center for Global Development, the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank. That’s the case for most of the program officers in the Global Development and Population Program.
In those work places, the air is thick with the peculiar jargon of international development: community capacity building, demand-driven, on-the-ground, low-hanging fruit, tackling the root causes of poverty (especially for women). Professionals progress through careers as they master a technocratic agenda and tally up the countries they’ve visited. With sweeping statements, people compare the social and economic trajectories of countries with peers at similar levels of incomes—“the Tanzanias of the world"—rather than invoking each country’s unique national history. Experts can rattle off average development indicators for rural and urban households, but are unable to name all three of the largest cities in the last country they worked in. Policy reforms are measured in five-year increments—the lifecycle of a project—with results observed at the national level, rather than in election cycles where gains are manifested unevenly across populations—region by region, district by district.
This is a caricature, of course, and there are impressive counter-examples. But there’s far more truth to it than fiction. And while international institutions and non-governmental organizations have facilitated many gains in social and economic well-being, they are profoundly limited by their outsider status. Fundamentally, they are poorly positioned to directly undertake the hard, long struggle of advancing political and social reforms in countries around the world. That’s the hard work of local reformers in civil society and public service—people with a stake in their own countries' futures.
So the trick is to figure out how we, as outsiders with a global perspective, can effectively support that hard work. We’ve found some ways. We can, for example, work toward the establishment of global norms for public sector transparency; we can support data collection and research that helps inform advocates and activists about where their country stands relative to others; we can foster exchange of tactical knowledge across borders. Importantly, we can provide funds directly or through intermediaries to organizations where people are working for social change in their own countries.
Those are a few of the things we can do. What we cannot do is define the right in-country policy agendas—or know the most effective, appropriate ways to pursue them. And if we ever start to forget that, we’ll watch our colleagues work on the many gnarly challenges we face here at home in the United States, and we’ll be reminded of how differently we have to do our jobs.
We fund a lot of research in the Global Development and Population Program. So we want to be sure that the researchers we’re supporting are using sound methods and reporting accurate findings. We want to contribute to the global public good of new knowledge, not the global public bad of weak science. Reaching that aspiration can be a challenge.
We are not the largest funder of research on issues in global development, but we’re one of them. Out of some $25 million in grants approved for our program at our Board meeting earlier this week, about a third of the dollars went to institutions that primarily engage in research; that proportion is characteristic of our whole grants portfolio. If you count up all our active research and evaluation-oriented grants, the total comes to about $100 million.
We occasionally fund specific studies that have narrow research questions, but more often we support research programs in think tanks, universities, and similar organizations. Topics covered range from those in political science about how citizens interact with local governments to public health investigations to estimate the incidence of unsafe abortion. The proposals aren’t like the thick protocols submitted to the National Academy of Sciences, the Wellcome Trust, or the National Institutes of Health, and when we review them we don’t anonymize, or blind, them as some of those institutions do. But—just like the funds from public research funders—the dollars we provide to researchers are used to design and field surveys, run field trials, analyze large data sets, and run policy simulations.
Eventually, some of the research will appear as published papers in political science, economics, demography, and public health; those work products will be subject to journals’ peer review, and investigators will struggle through the “revise and resubmit” obstacle course. Many of the studies, though, are not headed for publication in professional journals. Rather, findings are shared through institutional websites with a range of audiences in the form of working papers, reports, and policy briefs. All of it—we dearly hope—will help to increase the chances that policymakers will have (and use!) more and better information to make key decisions.
Which brings me to today’s conundrum: We are not staffed like a research funding institution, and we cannot count on journals’ quality assurance processes to vet all of the final products. So we have to figure out how to judge research quality, from proposal to finished product. That’s not so easy.
Research quality is a concept with many dimensions: Is it relevant? Are the choices about how to collect and analyze data appropriate, and are the methods applied correctly? Are the findings communicated in ways that work for technical and for policy audiences?
As grant makers with deep knowledge of the fields in which we work, we’re in a pretty good position to assess relevance of the questions and accessibility of the findings. It’s far harder, though, to figure out if the sampling design is sound, or if the statistical methods are the right ones, and are used correctly. We don’t have time to read every research paper our grantees produce, and I’m pretty sure they don’t want their program officer asking them a lot of questions about statistical power, endogenous variables and fixed-effects modeling. But we do have to find ways to assess the soundness of the research.
Here are a few ways we do it, and I freely admit that none of them is perfect:
The most common, and my least favorite by a country mile, is reputation. We assume the quality of the research is high when we’re working with researchers and institutions that have an established reputation for quality. This is self-evidently a risky strategy, but I’m pretty sure we are not alone among funders in using it. This isn’t blind review; it’s blinded-by-star-power review. And it’s one I’d like us to depend on a lot less.
We often ask about an institution’s own systems for quality assurance. Many think tanks, for instance, have peer review arrangements that include both in-house and external reviewers. We’ll ask questions about how they select the reviewers, what they do with comments, and whether they’ve ever had to retract a paper. We applaud grantees’ efforts to adhere to high levels of scientific transparency, including putting out original data sets to permit reanalysis.
We sometimes suggest ways to reinforce an organization’s own quality assurance processes, and may even provide extra resources for this purpose—for example, to recruit an advisory board that includes members with specialized knowledge, depending on them to vet the technical details. This can have a lot of benefits, including strengthening institutions beyond the one-time research effort.
We occasionally commission a quality assessment in which an outside expert audits a sample of the grantees’ work products, and reports findings to us. While not a full institutional evaluation, this can give us valuable information about strengths and weaknesses we might not otherwise have detected.
Knowing our own limitations, we occasionally bundle research funding into a regranting arrangement administered by a group that does have research skills in-house. This is the case, for example, with the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation and the International Development Research Center, both of which are partners in large regranting efforts.
We invest in field-wide efforts to foster greater quality such as impact evaluation registries and replication studies.
We believe in the value of research to refine concepts, develop coherent theory, and create a strong empirical basis for decision-making. That’s why, year after year, we recommend to our Board that they dedicate significant funds to individual studies and to research-based organizations. But with every grant recommendation we feel a heavy sense of responsibility: that research had better be good research. We know that’s the real test of a good research funder.
A mother and her daughter in Keur Alpha, Senegal read a coloring book created by Tostan, a grantee of our Global Development and Population Program. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Torgovnik/ Reportage by Getty Images, licensed under CC BY NC 4.0)
Policy matters. If I had to name the one assumption on which most of our grantmaking hangs—at least in the Global Development and Population Program—that would be it. We support organizations that study the impact of social and economic policies, and we support groups that advocate policy change that favors marginalized populations in countries around the world. We believe that when responsive, technically sound policies are adopted, people will be better off: women will have access to more and better health care, schools will do a better job of teaching kids to read, write, and do arithmetic, good jobs will be more plentiful.
In some domains—particularly around expanding reproductive and economic choices for women—we have a point of view about the policy agenda, and it’s a perspective strongly held by the foundation for decades. But we have a larger agenda: trying to increase the chances that those who are making policies have and use the best available evidence, and citizens who are affected have crucial information and channels of influence so that they can be heard at high levels.
That’s the story behind grants that are awarded to think tanks, universities, large policy-oriented international NGOs and even small advocacy groups in Mexico, as well as in countries in East and West Africa. It’s why, to put it plainly, a grantmaking program aiming to benefit the poor sends checks to organizations that are led and staffed by people who are, at the very least, not poor.
We could go about things a completely different way, of course. We could (and occasionally do) just pay for health care, or teachers’ salaries, or books. This is what many aid programs, both public and private, have done for decades. We could even recommend to our president and Board that we distribute money directly to poor people, as our friends at Give Directly do so well. If we took that route, we could stop sending those checks to the elite researchers, advocates, and institutions; we could skip policy and go to people. We could be certain that we were contributing to improvements in living conditions among known communities, in ways we could see and touch.
But the direct-to-people model of grantmaking, appealing as it is, doesn’t fulfill the responsibility we’re entrusted with by our Board. We’re asked to make as big a positive difference as possible with the resources available, and the way to do that is by acting on the levers through which a few dollars can affect many people over a long time: policy, markets, or technology. Most of the time, we choose to work on policy.
I think it’s the right choice, but I also think we have to be wary of believing our own stories too much. Knowing that the words on paper can be a lot prettier than the reality, we have to pay as much attention to the implementation of “good” policies as to their adoption. We also have to place priority on research and advocacy that reflect real experiences and foster greater empowerment.To do that, we can learn from those rare organizations, like WIEGO and Twaweza, that are based on principles of deep and genuine participation of people who otherwise would have no path to political power. We are watching with interest the experimental approaches that Feedback Labs and others are taking to connect people-level information to program- and policy-level decisions. And we are continuing to do grantmaking to support groups like Marie Stopes International as they provide services that help people in very direct and immediate ways. Although we’re at U.S. foundation with no in-country presence, we’re trying to keep our feet on the ground.
Policy matters, yes. But what really matters, after all is said and done, is people.