9 November, 2018

The Importance of Nuanced, Policy-Relevant Development Research

By Sarah Bermeo
Associate Professor of Public Policy and Political Science, Duke University

An open letter written a few months ago by fifteen development experts fell back on asking the same, age-old questions around international development policy. Should we focus on big problems like climate change or micro-projects that have easily measurable results? I pointed out at the time, as did others, that this framing assumes an either/or choice that can often be found in development debates, and ignores important nuance and complementarities.

Unfortunately, development-oriented research often asks questions framed around similar false dichotomies. Should donors give cash transfers, rather than project aid? Are multilateral institutions more efficient than bilateral donors? Should donors focus on building infrastructure or meeting immediate needs? Should we measure results by short-term impact or long-term growth? What works better, private sector finance or public-private partnerships? The real answer, almost always, is it depends.

Despite the continuation of oversimplified rhetoric, an encouraging trend in development research is moving beyond the easy questions and searching for nuance in the answers. In an impressive Afghanistan-based study, Jason Lyall, Yang-Yang Zhou and Kosuke Imai show that the combination of one-time unconditional cash transfers and training programs increases support for the Afghan government in the medium-term more than either program alone. Such results would be missed by a study that simply compared the effectiveness of cash transfers to that of other programs, without looking for combined effects.

Christopher Blattman, Nathan Fiala and Sebastian Martinez find that the impact of small cash grants in one Uganda program look less impressive nine years out than when initially studied four years after it began. Similar declining impacts were found by a team of researchers studying latrine use in India: five years following a program that provided education and subsidies for latrine building, households were more likely than a control group to use latrines; by ten years this difference was not discernible. In each case there were short-term effects which had measurable impacts, suggesting positive value even if it was not sustained over the long-term. Also in both cases, the long-term declines would have been missed had researchers stopped inquiry after the first sets of results.

These studies stand out as examples of the way forward for development research that can have policy impact. They are coming at an important time. Aid is at a crossroads. The patterns of aid allocation from traditional donors have changed significantly in recent years, suggesting that their motivations and desired goals are evolving. Established institutions like the World Bank face the need to reform or become less relevant. Newer institutions – like the Global Fund and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance – provide different approaches to assistance and opportunities for private funders to participate, but may also compete with traditional development institutions for funds from bilateral donors. The rise of China as a significant donor, and its different approach to aid giving, has raised questions about the role of conditionality and China’s approach to debt sustainability in recipient countries.

The evolution of foreign aid raises new questions and presents opportunities for development researchers to make important contributions studying aid processes and effectiveness. As scholars working on development look forward, they can be guided by recent studies that do not simply ask what works, but when and why and for how long.

Future research should avoid easy generalizations and artificial either-or framing of questions. To be effective, scholars must look for complementarities as well as tradeoffs. They can examine interlinkages between bilateral and multilateral approaches, short-term needs and long-term goals, official aid and private assistance, public goods and private benefits, unconditional cash and more traditional programmatic approaches. Researchers can study the benefits and drawbacks of new institutional structures that combine state and private funding. They can determine the circumstances under which Chinese aid and investment serves as a complement or substitute for aid from other donors. They can assess the role of non-governmental organisations under various conditions.

The possible intersections in development are numerous and exciting. By looking for nuance, researchers can avoid the tired clichés and produce development research of practical importance.

Sarah Bermeo is an Associate Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Duke University, faculty affiliate of the Duke Center for International Development, and author of ‘Targeted Development: Industrialized Country Strategy in a Globalizing World’ (Oxford, 2018).

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