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Lant Pritchett v the Randomistas on the Nature of Evidence - Is a Wonkwar Brewing?

Duncan Green's picture

Recently I had a lot of conversations about evidence. First, one of the periodic retreats of Oxfam senior managers reviewed our work on livelihoods, humanitarian partnership and gender rights. The talk combined some quantitative work (for example the findings of our new ‘effectiveness reviews’), case studies, and the accumulated wisdom of our big cheeses. But the tacit hierarchy of these different kinds of knowledge worried me – anything with a number attached had a privileged position, however partial the number or questionable the process for arriving at it. In contrast, decades of experience were not even credited as ‘evidence’, but often written off as ‘opinion’. It felt like we were in danger of discounting our richest source of insight – gut feeling.

In this state of discomfort, I went off for lunch with Lant Pritchett (right – he seems to have forgiven me for my screw-up of a couple of years ago). He’s a brilliant and original thinker and speaker on any number of development issues, but I was most struck by the vehemence of his critique of the RCT randomistas and the quest for experimental certainty. Don’t get me (or him) wrong, he thinks the results agenda is crucial in ‘moving from an input orientation to a performance orientation’ and set out his views as long ago as 2002 in a paper called ‘It pays to be ignorant’, but he sees the current emphasis on RCTs as an example of the failings of ‘thin accountability’ compared to the thick version.

For Political Communication, the Age of Nerds and Big Data is Here

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Sophisticated campaign communication (an important part of political communication) is a field both invented and dominated by American practitioners and scholars. When I ask my associates in the field why this is so, the reason they usually give me is the sheer quantity and frequency of democratic elections in the American political system. Therefore, they point out, human and material resources have been poured into the science and the art of winning election campaigns.  What is important for our purposes is that  the practices of American political communicators tend to spread worldwide... like much else in American culture. Politicians in newly democratizing polities have for decades now invited American political consultants to help them run and win elections. Local specialists have also mushroomed, many of them trained by the American universities who offer amazingly good degrees in communication, particularly political communication. If you are interested in campaign communication as a global phenomenon, a good place to start is Fritz Plasser's Global Political Campaigning: A Worldwide Analysis of Campaign Professionals and Their Practices (2002).

My bet is that at least two aspects of the recently concluded presidential election campaign in the United States -- a spectacular showcase of political communication at work -- will prove influential globally. President Obama was re-elected and it was a big win, but for campaign communication two methods won big victories of their own and they are likely to be flattered with imitation worldwide. They are as follows:

India's New Middle Classes - Friends of Progress or Apolitical Mall-Rats?

Duncan Green's picture

One of the topics that kept coming up during my recent trip with Oxfam India was the role of the rising middle classes. We had a great debate with Aseem Prakash from Jindal University, who is in the middle of a paper on this (I’ll link when it’s published). According to Aseem, different definitions yield numbers for India’s middle classes ranging from 5 million ($10-$20 per day) to 214 million ($2-$4 a day). What’s not disputed, however, is that the numbers are rising rapidly as India’s economy continues to boom.

Behind the numbers are some increasingly complex dynamics, as a new commercial middle class, including rising numbers of so-called ‘lower caste’ entrepreneurs, joins the post-independence middle class of mainly dominant-caste government technocrats who placed their faith in the power of the state to lead India’s rise.

'Bricifying' International NGOs is Hard Work: The Challenges Facing Oxfam India

Duncan Green's picture

I spent last week trying to understand an intriguing experiment. About five years ago, Oxfam GB’s 'white men in shorts' left India, along with all the other Oxfam affiliates, and a new, completely Indian-run Oxfam India took over. All part of ‘Bricification’ within the Oxfam family (there’s an Oxfam Brazil in the pipeline too).

So what’s changed? After a period of reflection Oxfam India has opted for a strategy combining programming with increased levels of advocacy in areas such as smallholder agriculture & climate change, natural resource management, right to education and health, violence against women and women’s empowerment, along with a hefty dose of emergencies work and disaster risk reduction. Its two ‘emerging themes’ are urban poverty and ‘India and the World’ – for example the impact of Indian investment in Africa, or India’s role in the G20.

But it hasn’t been easy. The apparently unanswerable political logic of ‘Indianizing Oxfam’ has faced some pretty steep challenges, as I found out in a consultation with partners from Indian civil society. These come in two broad areas: political and financial.

India's Slums: How Change Happens and the Challenge of Urban Programming

Duncan Green's picture

Got back from a fascinating week visiting Oxfam India last week, so the next few days’ post will be on India, sadly the world leader in poverty (by a long way). One of the areas that Oxfam is keen to develop there is its work on urban poverty, where it already works with migrant labourers, waste pickers, domestic workers, and on issues such as housing and access to identity papers. So I spent a couple of days visiting programmes and talking to partners in the slums of Delhi and Lucknow. (I prepped by reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers – wonderful book)

I know they’re grim to live in, but I have to confess to really enjoying visits to urban ‘informal settlements’, especially at dusk, with that particular sense of intimacy as cooking smells and firesmoke drift through the air and domestic workers, rickshaw pullers and street vendors return at the end of another hardscrabble day to grab an hour or two to socialize and relax.

But today, we’re encroaching on that precious leisure time, chatting to an animated group of slum leaders, mainly women, on the edge of Lucknow (see pic). Here, an Oxfam partner, the Vigyan Foundation, is promoting community organization to demand identity papers, water and sanitation, and access to health and education.

Quote of the Week: Norman Davies

Sina Odugbemi's picture

“All political institutions will end sooner or later.  The question is when and how.  It’s our vanity that makes us think that what forms part of our world today must be stable and secure.”

Norman Davies. As quoted in the Financial Times, October 19, 2012. Lunch with the FT: Norman Davies, by Tony Barber.

How Can a Post-2015 Agreement Drive Real Change? Please Read and Comment on this Draft Paper

Duncan Green's picture

The post-2015 discussion on what should succeed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is picking up steam, with barely a day going by without some new paper, consultation or high level meeting. So I, along with Stephen Hale and Matthew Lockwood, have decided to add to the growing slush-pile with a new discussion paper. We want you to read the draft (see right) and help us improve it. Contributions by 5 November please, either as comments on the blog, or emailed to research[at]oxfam.org.uk.

The paper argues that there’s an urgent need to bring power and politics into the centre of the post-2015 discussion. To have impact, any post-2015 arrangement has to take into account the lessons of over a decade of implementing the existing MDGs, and be shaped by the profound global change since the MDGs were debated over the course of the 1990s and early noughties.  We’re hoping that this will be at the centre of this week’s discussions in London linked to the High Level Panel and in Berlin at the Berlin Civil Society Center on Development post 2015.

Election Time: Be Careful around Men

Sina Odugbemi's picture

If there is an election campaign going on where you are, chances are that passions are galloping like unruly horses.  Everywhere, it seems, self-command is under threat.  The very air is thick with the clang of contention. The airwaves are clogged with clashing adverts and points of view. Supporters of rival political parties and candidates move from despair to euphoria and back again. Nerves are wrought; blood pressure levels rise; panic attacks spread like viruses.  Suddenly, everybody is an interpreter of opinion polls, of likely voters, registered voters, swing voters, independents, firm partisans, and all the subtle distinctions foisted on us by political communication experts for whom elections have become seasons to fatten up.

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