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So What do I take Away from The Great Evidence Debate? Final Thoughts (for now)

Duncan Green's picture

The trouble with hosting a massive argument, as this blog recently did on the results agenda (the most-read debate ever on this blog) is that I then have to make sense of it all, if only for my own peace of mind. So I’ve spent a happy few hours digesting 10 pages of original posts and 20 pages of top quality comments (I couldn’t face adding the twitter traffic).

(For those of you that missed the wonk-war, we had an initial critique of the results agenda from Chris Roche and Rosalind Eyben, a take-no-prisoners response from Chris Whitty and Stefan Dercon, then a final salvo from Roche and Eyben + lots of comments and an online poll. Epic.)

On the debate itself, I had a strong sense that it was unhelpfully entrenched throughout – the two sides were largely talking past each other,  accusing each other of ‘straw manism’ (with some justification) and lobbing in the odd cheap shot (my favourite, from Chris and Stefan ‘Please complete the sentence ‘More biased research is better because…’ – debaters take note). Commenter Marcus Jenal summed it up perfectly:

What have We Learned about Crisis/Fragile States? Findings of a 5 Year Research Programme

Duncan Green's picture

Cards on the table, confronted with a closely argued 11 page exec sum, I am unlikely to then read the full report. But the short version of Meeting the Challenges of Crisis States, by James Putzel (LSE) and Jonathan Di John (SOAS), is a meal in itself. It summarizes 5 years of DFID-funded research by the Crisis States Research Centre, led by the London School of Economics, and is a great way to take the temperature of academic thinking on ‘states with adjectives’ – fragile, failing, crisis etc etc.

The key question it seeks to answer is why the daily and inevitable tensions of politics and ‘conflict as usual’, which exist in any society, tip some states over into a downward spiral of distintegration, grand theft and violence, while others, even poor ones, prove resilient. Key Findings?

Like most political scientists, Putzel and Di John believe that if you want to understand politics, you have to understand elites. And that means jettisoning preconceptions of ‘good governance’ (aka how much do the institutions resemble an idealized notion of American/European democracy) and thinking instead about the underlying political settlement. How do individuals and groups with different slices of power protect and negotiate over their pieces of the pie?

What leads to fragility? In the rather disturbing language of the report:

Evidence and Results Wonkwar Final Salvo (for now): Eyben and Roche Respond to Whitty and Dercon + Your Chance to Vote

Duncan Green's picture

In this final post (Chris Whitty and Stefan Dercon have opted not to write a second installment), Rosalind Eyben and Chris Roche reply to their critics. And now is your chance to vote – but only if you’ve read all three posts, please.The comments on this have been brilliant, and I may well repost some next week, when I’ve had a chance to process.

Let’s start with what we seem to agree upon:

  • Unhappiness with ‘experts’ – or at least the kind that pat you patronizingly on the arm,
  • The importance of understanding context and politics,
  • Power and political institutions are generally biased against the poor,
  • We don’t know much about the ability of aid agencies to influence transformational change,
  • Mixed methods approaches to producing ‘evidence’ are important. And, importantly,
  • We are all often wrong!

We suggest the principal difference between us seems to concern our assumptions about: how different kinds of change happen; what we can know about change processes; if how and when evidence from one intervention can practically be taken and sensibly used in another; and how institutional and political contexts then determine how evidence is then used in practice. This set of assumptions has fundamental importance for international development practice.

The Evidence Debate Continues: Chris Whitty and Stefan Dercon Respond from DFID

Duncan Green's picture

Yesterday Chris Roche and Rosalind Eyben set out their concerns over the results agenda. Today Chris Whitty (left), DFID’s Director of Research and Evidence and Chief Scientific Adviser and Stefan Dercon (right), its Chief Economist, respond.

It is common ground that “No-one really believes that it is feasible for external development assistance to consist purely of ‘technical’ interventions.” Neither would anyone argue that power, politics and ideology are not central to policy and indeed day-to-day decisions. Much of the rest of yesterday’s passionate blog by Rosalind Eyben and Chris Roche sets up a series of straw men, presenting a supposed case for evidence-based approaches that is far removed from reality and in places borders on the sinister, with its implication that this is some coming together of scientists in laboratories experimenting on Africans, 1930s colonialism, and money-pinching government truth-junkies. Whilst this may work as polemic, the logical and factual base of the blog is less strong.

Rosalind and Chris start with evidence-based medicine, so let’s start in the same place. One of us (CW) started training as the last senior doctors to oppose evidence-based medicine were nearing retirement. ‘My boy’ they would say, generally with a slightly patronising pat on the arm, ‘this evidence-based medicine fad won’t last. Every patient is different, every family situation is unique; how can you generalise from a mass of data to the complexity of the human situation.” Fortunately they lost that argument. As evidence-informed approaches supplanted expert opinion the likelihood of dying from a heart attack dropped by 40% over 10 years, and the research tools which achieved this (of which randomised trials are only one) are now being used to address the problems of health and poverty in Africa and Asia.

The Political Implications of Evidence-Based Approaches (aka Start of This Week’s Wonkwar on the Results Agenda)

Duncan Green's picture

The debate on evidence and results continues to rage. Rosalind Eyben (left) and Chris Roche (right, dressed for battle), two of the organisers of April’s Big Push Forward conference on the Politics of  Evidence, kick off a discussion. Tomorrow Chris Whitty, DFID’s Director of Research and Evidence and Chief Scientific Adviser, and Stefan Dercon, its Chief Economist, respond.

Distinct from its more general usage of what is observed or experienced, ‘evidence’ has acquired a particular meaning relating to proof about ‘what works’, particularly through robust evidence from rigorous experimental trials. But no-one really believes that it is feasible for external development assistance to consist purely of ‘technical’ interventions. Most development workers do not see themselves as scientists in a laboratory, but more as reflective practitioners seeking to learn how to support locally generated transformative processes for greater equity and social justice. Where have these experimental approaches come from and what is at stake?

Why Don’t People in Power Do the Right Thing - Supply, Demand or Collective Action Problem? And What Do We Do about It?

Duncan Green's picture

My last few days have been dominated by conversations around ‘convening and brokering’, including an exchange between assorted ODI wonks and a bunch of NGOs on the findings of the Africa Power and Politics Programme, and a ‘webinar’ (ugh), with our Latin American staff on the nature of ‘leverage’ (a closely associated development fuzzword). Last week, I set out the best example of this approach that I’ve found to date, the Tajikistan water and sanitation network. Today it’s some overall conclusions from the various discussions.

David Booth from ODI described the question he is trying to answer as ‘why don’t people in power do the right thing?’ He thinks aid agencies (both official and NGOs) have moved from thinking that the answer is building capacity in government (supply side) to strengthening the voice of citizens to demand better services (demand side), but argues that both approaches are wrong.

The mistake, he argues is seeing power as a zero sum game, whereas often the barrier to progress is better seen as a collective action problem: ‘doing the right thing involves cooperating with others and people aren’t prepared to take risks and bear the costs of working with others, unless they believe that everyone else will do so too.’

That requires a different approach, getting everyone into a room to build trust and find joint solutions to a common problem.

'Convening and Brokering' in Practice: Sorting out Tajikistan’s Water Problem

Duncan Green's picture

In the corridors of Oxfam and beyond, ‘convening and brokering’ has become a new development fuzzword. I talked about it in my recent review of the Africa Power and Politics Programme, and APPP promptly got back to me and suggested a discussion on how convening and brokering is the same/different to the APPP’s proposals that aid agencies should abandon misguided attempts to impose ‘best practice’ solutions and instead seek ‘best fit’ approaches that ‘go with the grain’ of existing institutions in Africa. That discussion took place yesterday, and it was excellent, but that’s the subject of next week's blog. First I wanted to summarize the case study I took to the meeting.

The best example I’ve found in Oxfam’s work is actually from Tajikistan, rather than Africa, but it’s so interesting that I wrote it up anyway. Here’s a summary of a four page case study. Text in italics is from an interview with Ghazi Kelani, a charismatic ex-government water engineer who led Oxfam’s initial work on water and is undoubtedly an important factor in the programme’s success to date. Ghazi is currently Oxfam’s Tajikistan country director.

Development Optimism from Justin Lin: Review of 'The Quest for Prosperity'

Duncan Green's picture

‘Every developing country has the opportunity to grow at over 8% a year for 20-40 years, and to get rid of poverty within a generation.’ There’s something very refreshing about listening to East Asian development economists, in this case the prolific Justin Lin, a former World Bank chief economist, launching his new book The Quest for Prosperity, at ODI just before Christmas. The contrast between his can-do optimism and the dark clouds of Eurogloom and Afropessimism could not have been greater. But is he right?

While others in development wonkland are increasingly scathing about blueprints and best practice guidelines, Justin is unabashedly a man with a plan. The book takes his paper on ‘Growth identification and facilitation’, (see my earlier review, and Justin’s reply), and boils his thinking down into what he calls a ‘six point recipe’ for developing country governments.

Sierra Leone’s Cold Spot? Young People, Elections and Accountability in Kono

Jessica Sinclair Taylor's picture

Ibrahim Fanday, Chairman of Kono Youth Commission smiled proudly as he says ‘Kono is known as a trouble hot-spot – but at the end of the day, the elections were peaceful.’ Martha Lewis, a member of the local women’s network, agreed, saying ‘Hot spot? Cold spot!’ 

When Sierra Leone went to the polls in November last year, it followed months of speculation and fears that the hotly contested elections would be a flash-point for violence.  And Kono, the state which saw the worst of the ten year civil war, and remains notorious chiefly for its diamond miles and its instability, was predicted to be at the centre of any trouble.

The elections passed without major disturbances and were pronounced free and fair by the EU observers following them.  Ibrahim believes that the youth of Kono played a role in keeping the polling peaceful, by acting as ‘peace ambassadors’ in their communities.  His pride is echoed by everyone I speak to - Sierra Leone seems to have passed some kind of test, in both national and international eyes, by holding an election where 87.3% of the population turned out to vote, and the peace held.

Civil Society, Public Action and Accountability in Africa

Duncan Green's picture

An important new paper from some big development names – Shanta Devarajan and Stuti Khemani from the World Bank, and Michael Walton (ex Bank, now at Harvard Kennedy School) – directs a slightly fierce (but welcome) political economy gaze at donor efforts to strengthen civil society (one of the more recent developmental fads). As with most such papers, after a monumental literature review, one of the striking conclusions is how little we really know, but it gropes gamely through the fog of ignorance and confusion and arrives at some interesting conclusions.

First, the authors find that something significant is going on among Africa’s citizens: “a large shift in Africa in organization among citizens. Village-level group formation in Africa increased dramatically over the 1990s when participatory approaches were emphasized in international development paradigms, promoted through aid, and adopted deliberately by country governments to deliver projects to communities.” Interestingly, that increased participation applies to both democratic and less democratic systems. The question is in what situations that upsurge in civil society has impact, and how (if at all) aid agencies can help.

The paper adds its support to the growing demand that aid interventions abandon futile searches for ‘best practice’ in favour of understanding what are the ‘best fits’ for any given context:

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