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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:

‘The points of critique focus on the partly absurd effects of the current way the results agenda is implemented, while the proponents run a basic argument to whether we want to see if our interventions are effective or not. I really think the discussion should be much less around whether we want to see results (of course we do) and much more around how we can obtain these results without the adverse effects.’

There were some interesting convergences though, particularly Whitty and Dercon’s  striking acknowledgement of the importance of power and politics, which are often assumed to be excluded from the results agenda. But what they actually said was

‘Understanding power and politics and how to assist in social change also require careful and rigorous evidence.’

True, but what about reversing the equation? Does understanding the role of evidence in development also require a careful and rigorous understanding of power and politics? They never fully address that crucial point, which is at the heart of Roche and Eyben’s critique.

Both sides (rather oddly, as acknowledged experts in their fields) decried the role of experts. Whitty and Dercon called for ‘moving from expert (i.e. opinion-based, seniority-based and anecdote-based) to evidence-based policy’. Ah, turns out that what is actually being suggested is a move from one kind of expert (practitioners) to another (evidence/evaluation).

As a non number-cruncher I also took exception to their apparent belief that only those who understand the methodological intricacies of different evaluation techniques are eligible to pass judgement. On that basis politicians would be out of a job, and only rocket scientists would get to pronounce on Trident.

There was also a really confusing exchange on the hierarchy of evidence. Whitty and Dercon show a surprising (to me at least) commitment to multi-disciplinarity: ‘Methods from all disciplines, qualitative and quantitative, are needed, with the mix depending on the context….. it is not a matter of just RCTs, but of rigour, and of combining appropriate methods, including more qualitative and political economy analysis.’

Music to the ears of the critics, but is it actually, you know, true? Everything I hear from evaluation bods is that DFID does actually see RCTs as the gold standard, and other forms of evidence as inferior. Roche and Eyben returned to the attack on this in their response, arguing that what Whitty and Dercon call the ‘evidence-barren areas in development’ are only barren if you discount sociology and anthropology, among others, as credible sources of evidence. By the way, Ed Carr has a brilliant new post on the (closely linked) clash between quants and quals, arguing that while quants can establish causation, only quals can explain how that causation occurs.

But the exchange did provide me with one important (I think) lightbulb moment. It was about failure. Whitty and Dercon were particularly convincing on this: the evidence agenda ‘involves stopping doing things which the expert consensus agreed should work, but which when tested do not’. This is a nice Popperian twist – the role of evidence is not to prove that things work, but to prove they don’t, forcing us to challenge received wisdom and standard approaches. This is indeed what I noticed about Oxfam’s recent ‘effectiveness reviews’ – if you find no or negative impact, then you (rightly) start to re-examine all your assumptions. But if this is the proper role for the evidence agenda, is it politically possible? By coincidence I have just read Ed Carr’s forceful critique of Bill Gates’ approach to evaluation, arguing that failure is often airbrushed out in order to safeguard funding and credibility. That seems a pretty fundamental contradiction.

The comments were just as thought-provoking. One of the key messages that emerged is the gulf between these debates and what those in charge of gathering results in aid agencies actually face – highly constrained resources, crazy time pressure, and the need to deliver some (any!) results to feed the MEL machine. Oxfam’s Jennie Richmond reflected on the gap between theory and practice yesterday.

Commenter Enrique Mendizabal asked whether we are demanding a different role for evidence in poor countries than in our own.

‘In the UK, health policy is decided by a great many number of factors or appeals (evidence, sure, but also values, tradition, biases, political calculations, etc). We may complain about it but we accept that it is a system that works. But health policy for Malawi (or other heavily Aid dependent countries) is decided mainly by evidence (or what often passes as evidence at the time) and usually by foreign experts…. would we be happy with USAID funding a large evidence-based campaign to reform the NHS or our education policy?’

But he took his argument a step further – if the final decision should be left to the interplay of evidence (of different sorts), politics and negotiation, then DFID and other donors would be better advised to boost the ‘enabling environment’ for such debates and decisions by investing in tertiary education in developing countries:

‘strengthening economic policy debate is a more adequate objective than achieving policy change (even if it is evidence based).’

Commenter David highlighted a fundamental point that rather went missing in the initial exchange – how the results agenda does or doesn’t work in complex systems:

‘The results agenda approach tends, by presenting development as objectively knowable if broken down into discrete and small bits, todrive attention toward small, more easily measurable interventions to test, particular those that are suited to situations that are simple or complicated rather than complex. Current processes around evidence-based results fail to grapple with complex systems, interaction effects, and emergent properties that dominate most aid project landscapes.

A fundamental critique of the evidence-based revolution is that it actually diminishes efforts to get rigorous evidence about addressing complex challenges. We all want evidence, it’s a question of whether the current framing of “evidence-based” is distorting what types of evidence we gather and value. For those who think that the current emphases on methods to test what works are distorting how we value the evidence coming in (RCT=gold, qualitative methods=junk), this offers little other than platitudes about lots of other methods existing.

Personally, I would be a bigger proponent of the evidence-based revolution if it was coming to folks interested in power, politics, and development, and asking them what their questions are and what evidence might contribute to their work. Absent a learning agenda set to fit complex space and concern itself with power, it will continue to seem to me to be an instance of methods leading research – or searching for keys under the light rather than inventing a flashlight.’

To be fair, Roche and Eyben explicitly chose to focus on the politics of evidence, rather than the implications of complex systems (for example, the question of external validity in complex systems – or lack of it – raised by Lant Pritchett in our recent conversation.)

Final thoughts? After about 500 votes, the poll went narrowly to Whitty and Dercon (34% v 31% for Roche and Eyben, with a pleasing late rally for the ‘totally confused’ camp – my natural habitat). I think Chris Roche and Rosalind Eyben need to work on their communication style (more punchy, less abstract, more propositional). Chris Whitty and Stefan Dercon should give some examples of gold standard anthropological or sociological evidence to allay the doubts over their true commitment to multi-disciplinarity, and take the complex systems question more seriously.

A massive thank you to all who took part, and please can you come back for another go in a year or so? This one isn’t going away.

This post first appeared on From Poverty to Power

Photo Credits: F. Jourde and 917press

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