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Turning the gaze on ourselves: Acknowledging the political economy of development research

Humanity Journal's picture

This post by Lisa Denney and Pilar Domingo is a contribution to an online symposium from Humanity Journal on the changing nature of knowledge production in fragile states. Be sure to read other entries, beginning with Deval Desai and Rebecca Tapscott's piece.

IBM Research - Africa Scientists at Riara School, NairobiWhile researchers (ourselves included) now consistently underline the importance of understanding the political economy of developing countries and donors that support them in order to achieve better aid outcomes, the research industry remains largely ambivalent about questions of our own political economy. Desai and Tapscott’s paper is therefore a refreshing attempt to start unpacking this and the ways in which ‘evidence’ is produced within the development industry.

Here, we offer reflections on three stages of this process: building evidence, translating evidence and dislodging evidence. But a word of caution is also merited upfront. The fact that we are talking about “evidence,” rather than research, is itself telling and underscores a shift in the development industry in the last ten years. Speaking about ‘evidence’ rather than about “research” suggests something much more concrete and indisputable. Evidence is taken as proof. But surely research is also debate. While there are, of course, things for which largely indisputable evidence can be found (the effects of vaccines on disease, for instance), the use of this terminology, particularly in the social sciences where little is concrete or universal, suggests that final answers are discoverable. It can, thus, be used to close down debate, as much as to encourage it. Research, on the other hand, recognizes that most findings are contributions to knowledge that helpfully allow to move us towards deeper understanding and greater awareness but do not claim to be the final word on a given topic.
 

Tomayto tomahto: The research supply chain and the ethics of knowledge production

Humanity Journal's picture

Pre-test of Rural Household Survey, PakistanThis post is the first in a symposium from Humanity Journal on the changing nature of knowledge production in fragile states. It was written by Deval Desai, a Research Associate at ODI, and Rebecca Tapscott, a PhD Candidate at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

Aid in the 21st century is increasingly evidence-driven. Between 2000 and 2006, the World Bank spent a total of $630 million on research. By 2011 the World Bank was spending $606 million per year, or about a quarter of its country budgets. In September of this year, by signing up to the Sustainable Development Goals, the global community enshrined a commitment to “increase significantly” a range of high-quality data over the next 15 years, to facilitate qualitative as well as quantitative understandings of growth and progress.

As the international community seeks to tackle the “hard problems” of development—fragility, conflict, endemic poverty—qualitative research is ever-more important. These problems are not amenable to best-practice solutions but must be tackled through deep contextual understanding of their drivers. Or so the policy story goes.[1] As a result, conducting qualitative research today is different from the days when Geertz set out for Bali. Gone are the intrepid individuals setting off to explore and explain an untouched environment, unaware of the demands of policymakers.[2]

We argue that while practice has changed, the ideology of qualitative research has not. Qualitative research is generally understood as the individual exercise of research methods to produce knowledge about the world, knowledge that can then be taken up by governance actors of all stripes. By contrast, we believe that today we must understand research as asystemic intervention, within the broader context of globalization and international development. Therefore, we should start with the political economy of contemporary research—an iterative, professionalized and increasingly saturated practice—to rethink the political and ethical implications of the research that we do.

As a first step to this end, we contrast two stylized frameworks for understanding qualitative research in fragile contexts: The “fragility research” framework, which we argue dominates the current debate; and the “research supply chain” framework, which we offer as a new framework and a provocation to discussion. We discuss each in turn, first considering how fragility research frames knowledge production in fragile or conflicted-affected states, identifying some assumptions the fragility research framework rests on, and critiquing some of its key conclusions. We then discuss the research supply chain as an alternative framework to explore the relationship between knowledge generation and policy. Finally, we raise some questions based on the new framework’s implications.

Carolina on my mind: North Carolina’s Innovative Road PPP Financing Mechanism

Cledan Mandri-Perrott's picture
A rendering of the south section of I-77 near
Oaklawn Avenue in Charlotte.
Credit: NCDOT communications

“In my mind, I’m goin’ to Carolina,” sang North Carolina native James Taylor – but he probably wasn’t traveling there on a road funded through a public-private partnership (PPP). That’s because PPPs in the United States are not as prevalent as in other regions of the world. The reasons are varied, but it’s in large part because each state is responsible for setting its own transportation strategy and financing plan. Furthermore, U.S. state and subnational entities have traditionally benefited from an active municipal bond market that has allowed them to access monies from the capital market.

But a recent project in a commuter corridor in North Carolina might change the way people travel around the state.  Based in Charlotte, the largest city, the I-77 is the region’s first transportation PPP. This innovative US$650 million brownfield project combines private sector know-how with an efficient use of public funding structures, and could be a model for other U.S.-based transportation projects. In fact, some of the lessons from this project could also offer a way for other countries to develop public support mechanisms.

How corruption affects businesses around the world, in 5 charts

Ravi Kumar's picture


We know corruption in developing countries affects poor people the most. It also impacts firms in many ways.

Here are five charts showing how corruption is affecting businesses from South Asia to Sub-Saharan Africa.

Blog post of the month: If using ‘Theories of Change’ cannot transform the way you operate, why bother?

Suvojit Chattopadhyay's picture

Each month People, Spaces, Deliberation shares the blog post that generated the most interest and discussion. In November 2015, the featured blog post is "If using ‘Theories of Change’ cannot transform the way you operate, why bother? " by Suvojit Chattopadhyay .

Learning computer skillsIn a new (and commendably short) paper, Craig Valters advocates ‘modest radicalism’ in the use of Theories of Change (ToC) as an approach to improving reflection and learning in the development sector. In this paper, Craig reflects on the role of the ToC in the context of the ‘results agenda’ and suggests four principles that could help development organisations develop knowledge and improve practice: Focus on processes; Prioritise learning; Be locally-led; and ‘Think compass, not map’. Do read the full paper!

In this post, I share some additional thoughts on the use of ToCs and how they might be improved. I start with two problems in the way we do things.

  • In development, failures are hard to detect: Often, organisations that fail find ways to mask failure – by either refusing to acknowledge failure, finding external factors, or moving on to a different desk officer/donor/location. So within the aid industry, we have a peculiar situation where it is real hard to fail – or at least, it is hard to know when a project has failed.
  • It’s harder still to ensure that projects that fail face significant consequences of failure: Organisations that implemented the failed projects should be required to make significant changes to key aspects of design or management.

Weekly wire: The global forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

World of NewsThese are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.
 

How the new peace and violence development goals can be met
The Conversation
For the first time, issues of violence and peace are part of a global development framework. The recently launched Sustainable Development Goals aim to “significantly reduce all forms of violence and related deaths everywhere”.  While admirable in its intent and ambition, is this possible? And, if so, how? Earlier global agreements, notably the Millennium Development Goals, did not consider issues of conflict and violence. Critics point to the omission as one reason areas affected by conflict and violence lagged so far behind peaceful and stable countries on achieving the goals. Human development indicators are often far worse in conflict areas.  On top of this delivering development is made more difficult by continuing violent insecurity, politicised divisions and militarisation. Unsurprisingly, people in these areas see reducing levels of violence and conflict as the most important way in which their lives could be improved.

Understand COP21 in these 7 graphics
GreenBiz
Today marks the third day of COP21, a key milestone in the global effort to combat climate change. For the next two weeks, representatives from more than 190 countries will work towards creating a legally binding and universal agreement that spells out how countries will cooperate on climate change for decades to come. A strong Paris agreement can send the signal to the world that the global transformation to a climate-resilient, zero-carbon economy is underway. Here’s a visual look at recent progress the world has made, as well as what needs to be done in Paris and beyond to truly overcome the climate change challenge

From the ideal to the real: 20 lessons from scaling up innovations at the World Bank

Soren Gigler's picture

On a brisk February morning in 2010, a small group of my World Bank colleagues, a few AidData partners, and I were in brainstorming mode.  Our topic of discussion: how we could make a meaningful, measurable difference in making our development projects more open, transparent, and effective.

One idea lit us all up: putting development on a map. We envisioned an open platform that citizens around the world could use to look up local development projects and provide direct feedback. We were inspired by “open evangelists” like Beth Novek, Hans Rosling and Viveck Kundra.

 

 Testing of the citizen feedback platform with local community members in rural Cochabamba, Bolivia
 

However, there was one challenge: how could we help make the World Bank’s data and numerous data sets fully open, free, shareable, and easily accessible to anyone? At the time, the large majority of these data sets were proprietary, and those who had access to key data sets were a relatively limited number of technical specialists.

 

In addressing this issue, we were fortunate. We worked closely as a small, creative, and highly committed team of innovators from different parts of the Bank to gradually open up the Bank’s data. To be honest, no one on our small team of incubators could have predicted that we would be able to scale up our early innovations so rapidly and that they would result in such important changes in the Bank’s approach to data and openness.

 

Are we ready to embrace big private-sector data?

Andrew Whitby's picture



The use of big data to help understand the global economy continues to build momentum. Last week our sister institution, the International Monetary Fund, launched their own program in big data, with a slate of interesting speakers including Hal Varian (Google Chief Economist), Susan Athey (Professor at Stanford GSB and a former Microsoft Chief Economist) and DJ Patil (Chief Data Scientist of the United States).
 
The day's speakers grappled with the implications of big data for the Fund's bread-and-butter macroeconomic analysis--a topic of great interest to the World Bank Group too. Examples were presented in which big data is used to generate macroeconomic series that have traditionally been the preserve of national statistical offices (NSOs): for example, MIT's Billion Prices Project, which measures price inflation in a radically different way from traditional CPI statistics.
 

Three innovations to drive infrastructure development

Teo Eng Cheong's picture
container ship in Panama canal
Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/wirralwater/ 

A few months ago, I had a chance to visit the Panama Canal, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. It is truly a mega-structure that is the largest infrastructure project of its time.
 
When I saw it, what struck me the most was - “How could this be possible”? One hundred years ago, Panama was a country that was just formed and capital markets were not very well-developed. And technology was obviously not as advanced as it is today.
 
Fast forward 100 years, in the world today, Asia has a huge demand for infrastructure. In Singapore, we know of Hyflux, which has one of the largest desalination plants in Singapore. Sembcorp Utilities has a power plant project in Bangladesh recently and PSA has a port in Guangxi China. These are just some examples of Singapore companies who have gone into infrastructure development. Yet, not enough projects have been implemented, especially in Asia.


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