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"Foundations": A Q&A with Ruth Levine, Global Development and Population Program Director

Jul 21, 2011


Ruth LevineRuth Levine is director of the Hewlett Foundation’s Global Development and Population Program. A development economist and expert in international health and education, Levine is overseeing the integration of the Foundation’s Global Development and Population programs. Levine comes to the Foundation from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Here she talks about how her career prepared her for her current job and her plans for integrating the two programs.

Tell us a bit about your background and how it informs what you want to do here.

This opportunity—and particularly the integration of the Population and Global Development programs—represents a remarkable convergence of my professional interests over the past twenty-five years. My doctoral training was in economic demography, and I analyzed the relationships between women’s employment opportunities, contraceptive use, and a range of economic and health outcomes at the household level in urban Mexico—precisely the sort of relationships that concern the Population Program. Then my early professional work focused on the “how” of education, health, and family planning service delivery and financing in East Africa, Egypt, India, Latin America, and the Caribbean, while I was at the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.

More recently, I spent nine years working with Nancy Birdsall at the Center for Global Development, helping to build a leading think tank focused on a range of development policy issues, from aid effectiveness to climate change to microfinance. And, immediately before coming to the Hewlett Foundation, I was leading the effort at the U.S. Agency for International Development to revitalize and strengthen evaluation within the U.S. government’s bilateral aid program. This means that, in both substantive work and professional networks, I have a strong connection to almost all of the Global Development and Population Program’s portfolio.

Why is the Foundation integrating its Global Development and Population programs? What strategic advantage does that offer?

There historically has been, and still is, very close alignment between the programs. They share a focus on households, communities, and countries that are the poorest and most marginalized. That means paying attention not just to how much money is available through donor agencies and governments, but also to the effectiveness with which that money is used to achieve meaningful change in people’s lives. The programs also share a strong emphasis on ensuring that both local and global decision makers act on sound evidence. And both programs have worked with many of the same funding partners and a number of the same grantees, so it was natural to think of the possibility of bringing them together.

The integration permits us to make more deliberate, strategic connections across the grantmaking portfolio that are mutually reinforcing: education, access to quality family planning and reproductive health, accountable and transparent institutions in developing countries, and improved effectiveness of development assistance are all integral parts of a virtuous cycle of more rapid, sustainable development. The U.S. reproductive health and rights grantmaking is an important part of the integrated program. This area of grantmaking has intrinsic merits, and it also permits us to understand and tackle the relationship between the debates that concern U.S. domestic policy and those that affect this country’s international posture.

What facets of the two programs are you most interested in learning more about to ensure a successful integration?

I’m most interested in understanding what the experiences have been so far when the program components—quality education, transparency and accountability, population, and family planning and reproductive health—have jointly supported work. There’s already a bit of a track record, and it’s important to see whether lessons from those experiences can help inform our future work.

Where do you see the greatest opportunities for grantmaking in the new integrated program?

That’s a great question. We’re having those discussions now, and there are clearly several opportunities to explore. In our work to support the development and implementation of improved practices by major international donor organizations, there are ways in which we could encourage greater focus on quality education, reproductive health, and attention to demographic issues in high-fertility countries. In the support we provide within specific areas—again, education and reproductive health—we have much to learn about the value of specific approaches to enhance transparency and accountability.

Are there areas of the two programs’ work that you expect will be amplified as a result of this integration?

It’s too early to know about any evolution in emphasis, but I don’t anticipate any dramatic changes. However, I believe we’ll see more impact in the population and reproductive health portfolio: connecting its work to a broader set of issues will help us reach new audiences and decision makers.

What does it mean for population grantmaking to be integrated into the larger world of global development?

I believe it’s a very healthy change at this time. In the case of family planning and reproductive health, the connections with global development are natural and not contrived. I have every expectation that, rather than getting diluted, the impact of the work will be even more significant than before. We’ve seen that other “sectors” benefit in the quality of thinking behind policies, the amount of resources devoted, and the degree of eventual impact when they are linked to high-level development issues. It’s easy to see how connecting education for girls with reproductive health and income will accrue to the benefit of both issues.

Importantly, the relatively new work in global development will also benefit tremendously from the long experience and outstanding reputation that the Foundation has in population and reproductive health. In particular, that field has been a true leader in establishing data systems and research that have had major influence over policies. That experience has much to offer to relatively newer endeavors in aid effectiveness, transparency, accountability, and quality education.

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Click here to read Ruth Levine's bio.

Click here to learn more about the integrated Global Development and Population Program.