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.
Behold the IMF: an organization that has become a champion of women’s economic empowerment in a big way.
The International Monetary Fund, that citadel of macroeconomic orthodoxy, has stated loudly and clearly that countries’ long-term prosperity depends on making more room in the labor force for women. In a speech last September in Japan, IMF Chief Christine Lagarde made the point elegantly: “We will need all the economic growth, dynamism, and ingenuity we can get in the years ahead. Thankfully, a key part of the solution is staring us right in the face—unleashing the economic power of women. Bringing the world’s largest excluded group into the fold.”
Looking across countries, the IMF has estimated that expanding economic opportunities for women can increase national income by 15 to 30 percent. And the institution, known in the past for harsh macroeconomic prescriptions, now offers up recommendations focused on economic inclusion.
In a study released just this past Monday, IMF researchers found that women’s participation in the job market depends on national policies that give women an equal chance at inheriting property, owning land, opening bank accounts and pursuing an occupation of their choosing. Many countries have gender-biased policies on the books and women’s full economic productivity simply can’t happen under the current rules of the game.
Their conclusion is straightforward: Want to grow your economy? Fix the gender-based discrimination that’s codified in laws and regulations. As Lagarde wrote about the study on her blog, “By helping women reach their full economic potential, we can also help boost growth, prosperity and stability for the whole world. In a world in search of growth, women will help find it, if they face a level playing field instead of an insidious conspiracy!”
This is precisely what the world needs to hear from the IMF—but we need to hear more.
We need to hear that the IMF sees and understands the informal economy, which is where the majority of female workers in many countries can be found. Yes, it’s great to pass laws that permit women to inherit property and pursue careers in occupations like teaching, banking, and hospitality. It would be even better to provide legal protections for domestic workers, women who sew garments in their homes, food vendors at construction sites, and people who sort out recyclable and reusable items from vast mountains of waste. Those workers are contributing to the economy, too.
We need to hear that the IMF recognizes the unpaid labor that keeps households running, farms producing, and family businesses afloat. National income measures don’t include the value of childcare, eldercare, cooking, cleaning, and many other services when they are provided outside of the context of a market transaction. As a consequence, productivity is vastly underestimated—and the contribution that women make is too often invisible to economic policymakers. Wages for housework? Maybe not. But recognition of the economic value of care and other unpaid work? A fitting task for a global financial institution.
Think tanks have tremendous potential to strengthen economic and social policy around the world, using data and analysis to answer questions about how to grow economies, share prosperity, and protect the environment. It is within think tanks that skilled analysts pull apart the most pressing policy problems, examine the impacts of policies, and translate the best available evidence from around the world into a local context. But to fulfill their promise, think tanks need well-qualified staff with the wherewithal to build long-term research programs, and they need to be able to respond with information and advice when unexpected policy opportunities arise. In other words, to fulfill all that potential, they need core organizational support and cannot just live project-to-project.
This week, my colleague Sarah Lucas and I have been in snowy Istanbul at the Think Tank Exchange, a gathering of 40-plus think tank leaders convened by the Think Tank Initiative (TTI). Along with the British and Norwegian governments, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Canada’s International Development Research Centre we support TTI. Through it, we and co-funders provide core support to think tanks in Latin America, South Asia, and Africa. This conference was a chance to see what our grant dollars are paying for—and we like what we’re seeing.
Talking to the extraordinary men and women who run these organizations, I heard time and again that core support is the lifeblood of think tanks, whose success depends on credibility and relevance. When an organization has resources that are not all tied up in specific, short-term projects, it can recruit the best researchers and give them the independence to pursue research on policy questions that no particular funder has yet prioritized. With core support, a think tank can ensure continuity within a research program, consolidating the organization’s reputation for being a “go to” source on a topic. It can invest in basic research infrastructure—library services, development of an economic or environmental model for policy simulations, statistical support—that yield benefits for multiple research projects. And the organization can marshal a response when, with the election of new political leadership or a boom in government revenues, a window opens up for new ideas.
The range of research conducted by think tanks supported by the Think Tank Initiative. Click the image to view full-sized. (Image Credit: Think Tank Initiative)
Funding think tanks is quiet and wonky, and there are days when it feels like an agonizing blend of academia and politics, a crazy mash-up of research methodologies, regulatory minutiae, and ministry personalities. There are no ribbons to cut, or announcements about how many microloans were offered or lives saved. Even when think tanks have major accomplishments to their name, they resist bragging because maintaining a relationship of trust with policymakers often requires letting others take credit. For that reason, it is hard for think tanks to be recognized by funders for the value they bring.
But like us, our fellow Think Tank Initiative funders do know there’s a very high pay-off when people who care about getting the facts are able to influence political decision makers. When think tanks find their voice—and that’s happening more and more, as the appetite for evidence and technical advice increases in many countries—there’s no question that they are key contributors to national policy debates. Think tanks deserve the level and type of funding that will let them do their best work. They deserve core support.
In his most recent essay, “Can Rich Countries be Reliable Partners for National Development?” Lant brilliantly deconstructs the existential crisis that faces traditional development agencies. The paper is a “must-read-now” for those who work in or around any bilateral agency or multilateral development bank because it lays bare the fundamental disconnect between the current missions of major development institutions and the actual wants and needs of both citizens in developing countries and their governments.
“Across the board, rich countries are backing away from the national development goals of poor countries, such as broad-based prosperity and effective government . . . towards a narrow agenda of low-bar goals, such as reducing ‘dollar-a-day’ poverty; ‘completing primary schooling’ (with no mention of quality of learning or education beyond primary); accessing basic water and sanitation; or focusing less on health and more on specific diseases.”
Several forces are pushing development agencies in this direction. Developing countries have alternatives to aid, particularly with resources from their own economic growth. And aid supporters in rich countries are increasingly “post-materialist,” which creates a divergence between what they want to provide and what people in developing countries want.
Lant’s analysis helps explain the poor track record of attempts to promote “country ownership.” To date, no development agency—with the possible exception of the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation—has done even a C+ job of aligning agency priorities with those established within partner countries, or using development dollars to strengthen in-country institutions and markets. Rich-country taxpayers who support aid tend to want faster progress toward pro-poor health, education and other social outcomes rather than economic growth alone. Even more daunting for the “country ownership” agenda is the awkward reality that shifting the locus of power to the national level wins few friends on the home front, particularly among those who are losing out on potential revenues from the business of aid.
Lant’s essay lays out a conundrum that seems irreconcilable. Given their constituencies, aid agencies cannot finance the things that address economic development writ large – such as energy projects, infrastructure, urban construction, universities, and transportation. So what’s a development agency to do?
The answer, I think, also comes from Lant—but from earlier times.
In 1999, Lant and his colleague Deon Fillmer figured out a way to take household survey data, like the Demographic and Health Survey, and estimate a robust wealth index so that we could compare and contrast the experiences of the wealthiest with the poorest households. Their paper, “Estimating Wealth Effects without Expenditure Data—or Tears: An Application to Educational Enrollments in States of India,” led directly to an explosion of analyses of equity in health, education, family planning, and other service utilization. For the first time, we could see, across dozens of countries, that progress was extraordinarily uneven, and that the benefits of spending on supposedly “pro-poor” interventions like childhood immunization were largely captured by better-off families. We had a new and crucially important way to assess the performance of a wide spectrum of government and donor programs, and to improve their design. Information and analysis shed new light, and continues to do so to this day.
Then, in 2002, Lant wrote “It Pays to be Ignorant: A Simple Political Economy of Rigorous Program Evaluation.” In it, he explained—using equations!—why and how individual development agencies and governments are unlikely to invest in learning from experience, even though it would permit them to optimize the impact of their spending. That was one of several seminal contributions that led to the movement for more and better evaluation through collective action.
And in 2004, Lant and his colleague Michael Woolcock wrote in “Solutions when the Solution is the Problem: Arraying the Disarray in Development” about intrinsic limitations of development interventions that are based on a technocratic analysis of “need:” When the problem is defined from 30,000 feet as a need for more clean water, for example, the solution starts with pipes and flow rates. If the people actually affected, within a local context, were given the opportunity to define a problem for themselves, and propose its solution, chances are they would pursue a path far different from both the technocrats and from people in other communities. It’s a complex paper, but at least one of its core messages is that information about people’s views, preferences, and experiences must be taken into account—and given real weight alongside external technical expertise.
These ideas can help development agencies escape their conundrum. Aid may be unable to finance the hydroelectric dams that countries want, but they can finance the information, research, piloting, and adaptation that make a difference in the ultimate success or failure of governments’ own investments. What Lant’s work has demonstrated over many years is the crucial role that information, analysis, and evaluation can play in shaping better outcomes for real people in real places. As I argued in an earlier blog post, aid agencies—particularly if they are willing and able to work collectively—have a comparative advantage in investing in gathering and revealing facts on the ground. Part of that agenda is pure data, part is research, part is evaluation and other forms of feedback. But it’s all important, and it’s all a big part of what needs to happen next if development aid agencies are ever to find the sweet spot between what they should do and what they can do.