Articles What’s wrong with evidence-informed development?

What’s wrong with evidence-informed development?

In this blog Howard White, co-chair of the Campbell Collaboration, shares his perspective from the international development sector that, as is often the case for those working at the local and national level, continuity is the norm, change is incremental and big bangs are rare. Arguing that, no matter how ingenious, an innovation just won’t take without the support of local stakeholders. And that it’s domestic actors, not international agencies, who have the power to implement changes. For evidence-informed development this means that impact evaluations need to focus on existing interventions which already have political support and are more likely to be policy relevant and get policy traction.

On my reading list as an undergraduate in development studies was Peter Laslett’s The World We Have Lost, This is a social history that challenges the view that pre-industrial England was a stagnant society. Rather, it had many of the features of industrial or even modern Britain. Another influential work was Anthony Brewer’s Marxist Theories of Imperialism, which was important partly because it brought the mainly French debate on the articulation of the modes of production to the attention of English-speaking scholars. For example, the way in which capitalism works in Asia is different to how it works in Europe, as it is embedded in (articulates with) the pre-existing mode of production. What these two apparently disparate works have in common is the theme that continuity is the norm, change is incremental and big bangs (major change events) are rare.

Policy change is rooted in domestic politics

The role of continuity and incremental change was central to my own work on structural adjustment in the 1990s, for example in Programme Aid and Development, which I co-authored with Geske Dijkstra. Whilst policy change can be affected by external factors, it is largely endogenous, and it is driven by domestic political agendas. The argument that the World Bank and International Monetary Fund successfully imposed policies on willing governments was always overstated. Either governments were led by believers in the need for reform, such as President Rawlings in Ghana, or governments agreed to policies they then didn’t implement, such as Kenya for many years.

Great ideas without internal support will remain just that, ideas

How does all this matter for evidence-informed development? It means that ideas that come from outside a country are unlikely to see wide-scale adoption. Since these ideas haven’t grown out of domestic policy debates, don’t have ownership by local stakeholders and so they don’t have local champions. Aid donors are much less important than they like to think they are (including 3ie). Many of the clever ideas being dreamed up as nudges will fall into this category. They may change incentives or behaviour, and the evidence may show they work. But none of that matters as they won’t be taken up by governments. Of course there are exceptions, but these are rarer than the more usual cases of no or failed take up.

Focus impact evaluations on active policies

Impact evaluations of existing interventions, especially those that governments are already undertaking, are far more likely to be policy relevant and get policy traction. Hence the importance of 3ie’s Policy Window which evaluates programmes selected by the implementing agency, and the World Bank’s new i2i initiative which is following a similar approach.

Innovation doesn’t happen without insider support

This isn’t to say that there can’t be any policy innovation. Innovation can and does happen within a government. Innovation is even more likely with NGOs that are more flexibile. (Though many ideas are not new ideas at all – which was a theme in my recent lecture in London). But for these innovations to be adopted by governments, researchers need to work on building relationships with policymakers. They usually need to get an insider position with policymakers. This is a process requiring more than a few weeks or even months.

This blog originally appeared 3ie’s website.


Views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Join us (it’s free and open to all) and find out more about the how we champion the use of evidence in social policy and practice.