The Importance of Nuanced, Policy-Relevant Development Research

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).

What is the Future of the ‘Development Effectiveness’ Agenda in Today’s Shaky World?

This week, the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation finished a two-day event in Paris to “Reinvigorate Effectiveness for the 2030 Agenda“. After much discussion and deliberation, here are my top four takeaways from the event:

(1) “Stronger together”

The presence of 80+ countries and a diversity of development agencies and constituencies confirms the good health of the Global Partnership. It was also a call to strengthen its role as an open platform that facilitates cross-regional learning and (soft but multi-stakeholder & action-oriented) accountability.

(2) “Ownership, ownership, ownership”

If there was one key message that seemed to transpire from each session, it was the need to bring back to the spotlight the principle of country ownership. In today’s world, with development agencies and partner countries both hard-pressed to show short-term tangible results at home as they deal with instability and external shocks, the ownership principle has somehow weakened. The level of trust needed for effective development and co-operation has become a rare commodity.

Rebuilding trust will require changing practices (even if through trial-and-error) that allow transferring leadership back from development agencies to partner governments, while those governments continue strengthening country institutions and opening them up to the whole of society, including civil society, the private sector, trade unions, and others. The cost of inaction is greater instability.

(3) “Evolving is a need”

As growing instability shakes up economies and political systems around the world, we need to continue reinterpreting and sharpening our tools to monitor effectiveness, which in turn would provide useful evidence to guide our countries’ and organizational strategies and practices.

Paris monitoring (2005) was very focused on a few concrete areas and some still miss it, but it was pretty much centered around efficiency issues affecting donor-government relationships. Busan monitoring (2011) expanded the scope to address in full the issues of politics, inclusive power-sharing and accountability. The Busan monitoring, now firmly anchored in measuring the quality of the means of implementation of the SDGs, needs to continue evolving to be as useful as it can be, for all types of countries, and for all other development partners.

(3) “Show me the results”

2019 is going to be flooded with evidence and results to share throughout the Global Partnership and during the Partnership’s Senior-Level Meeting in July. This will come from a number of ongoing activities, including the results of the 2018 monitoring round, currently testing the health of “effectiveness” on the ground; from the learnings on how to improve effectiveness in fragile and conflict-afflicted contexts and in working with the private sector; and from nine country pilots experimenting ways to implement the effectiveness principles in practice, including one working on South-South co-operation effectiveness. All these learnings and other mapping exercises will be reflected in the Global Partnership’s Compendium of Good Practices and a knowledge-sharing platform, all to be discussed with senior policy-makers in New York in July.

(4) “Not ‘if’ but ‘how’”

On the point of ‘working with the private sector’, the conversation showed that our “development feet” have been inside the water for a while already, but we still need a better compass to swim into the open sea – maybe by listening to all the relevant constituencies that are necessary for good, pro-developmental public-private engagement.

As participants left the French capital, many talked in the corridors about how the passionate discussions brought them hope and a sense of direction. If reinvigorating the effectiveness agenda required this small, collective shake-up of the like-minded, it is pretty much welcomed.

Building Trust: How the Development Community Can Engage the Private Sector

Blog originally posted in OECD Development Matters.

Fundamental to my organisation’s success in delivering local impact against several of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has been developing an ecosystem of global and local in-country partners. And critical to this ecosystem is private sector participation: Corporate partners bring a different lens on what we do, a welcome push for innovation, creative approaches and efficiencies, and a business-like approach and priority to sustainability. Through mutual trust, we are now co-designing new initiatives that lead to positive impact for development and businesses.

I am a strong advocate for engaging the private sector in effective development. The private sector is often a strong and effective contributor to local development in the countries, cities and towns in which its offices are located and where its employees live, generously supporting local services. The challenge now is to extend local purpose and responsibility from “down the street” to a global perspective within the SDG framework. I advocate for this on the Business Leaders’ Caucus of the Global Partnership.

The conditions are aligning for greater peer-to-peer engagement between the private sector and the local and international development community, encompassing government agencies, multilateral agencies, NGOs, social enterprises, foundations, executing agencies and donors. And I observe this growing alignment in several ways:

  • Development partners are reaching out to the private sector because they know that the SDGs cannot be achieved without multi-stakeholder collaboration and an important, perhaps dominant, role for the private sector.

The private sector focuses on skills, techniques, innovation, sustainability, efficiency, flexibility and speed of decision-making and execution – and yes, if the business case is right, financing. Virtually every gathering of development partners has a session on the private sector (yet limited private sector participation), and enlightened development partners are busy recruiting experts in creative finance and who know how to leverage corporate experience. Development partners are taking seriously the need to structure policies and programs that consider the interests of and pressures on business.

  • Encouraging shifts are also occurring within the corporate world.

Enlightened boards and CEOs are basing long-term strategies around a triple social, environmental and financial bottom line. Profit is being balanced with purpose; performance is measured and rewarded by both profit and purpose. Purpose is no longer the purview of arms-length corporate social responsibility (CSR) foundations, but integrated into the very values and behavior of organisations. The importance of the SDGs is recognised for creating new growth markets, and actively participating in international development facilitates an understanding of these markets and cultures, informs new products and services, provides access to tomorrow’s employees, shapes management and staff as global citizens, and builds brand goodwill. See, for example, the SDG Business Forum organised by the International Chamber of Commerce, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) survey of business and the SDGs, and the growing literature on business and sustainable development. Consider too what the private sector is doing with a growing respect for purpose-led businesses. I applaud Larry Fink, Chairman of BlackRock, for his letter to CEOs calling for “A Sense of Purpose”. IBM encourages the Fortune 500 to assume a stronger role and responsibility for development, as it does through its Corporate Service Corps programme. A sea change seems to be occurring – customers will reward the companies with community purpose and abandon those without one.

However international development investments are not sidetracked to finance the private sector, but rather to incentivise and reduce risk for engaging the incremental capabilities, resources and comparative advantages of purpose-led private sector entities. We must learn to do this from the growing evidence of case studies on how to select wisely and build trust.

Global Partnership case studies in Bangladesh, Egypt, El Salvador and Uganda have shown, for example, that development partners could do more to make a better business case to attract the private sector to engage, and to better target marginalised populations, including in the informal sector. The studies revealed a range of good practices, in particular to support small business owners: Danone and Care, for example, work with small-scale breeders in Egypt to increase their knowledge and equip them with skills to increase production, as well as overall quality milk supply. The Business Initiative Leading Development (BUILD), a dialogue platform launched by some of the leading Chambers of Commerce in Bangladesh, has become a solid and inclusive voice in shaping policy in areas where growth is critical for realising the country’s development vision, from disaster risk management to social development. Another example are the Salvadorian Small Business Development Centres, one-stop shops where micro-enterprises and SMEs can find a wide range of services to support them launch or scale up their businesses. They provide easily accessible training, networking and engagement opportunities in partnership with many municipalities, and the support of universities and NGOs.

In our experience, two factors help forge trusted relationships with corporate partners. One, speaking the same language of markets, staff development and retention, and return on investment aligns values and builds a mutual case. Two, arriving with developed concepts and programme structures, an understanding of the gaps, and seeking incremental compatibility helps. In one case, a corporation had designed its programme, but needed local knowledge and “feet on the street” that we represented. In another case, we had the programme model and local knowledge, but needed technology and business advice. Our corporate partner knew that they could learn from how we adapted their technology in countries and cultures that they had not considered.

Informed by these examples and experiences, three strong and practical recommendations lay the groundwork for engagement and trust that development partners and corporate colleagues alike would welcome:

Be prepared; do the research: Building a shared understanding, and ultimately trust, for any new venture requires good research. Approaching the private sector is no different. Shift the lens from the development perspective to the private sector perspective. Learn the language of the business and its industrial sector. Websites, annual reports, speeches, and CSR reports are available to explore businesses with purpose, along with their boards and CEO leadership, strategic plans, recent performance, and shareholder expectations. If the “match” is not evident, move on.

The value proposition: Armed with a defined concept or programme design, development goals and impact, and research, develop a business proposition for engagement that integrates value not only for development against the SDGs, but also for the private sector organisation that speaks their language and aligns with their purpose. For example, this could be market knowledge in a particular country that could scale to the region, cultural insights that could influence creativity in product design or upskilling of employees. Be explicit about the assets and value that the development partner offers to reduce risk and ensure success – be it previous experience, proven expertise or funding.

Efficiency and effectiveness: If one factor can destabilise a peer-to-peer relationship with the private sector, it is the threat of bureaucracy. Be up front about decision-making and where decisions are made, by whom and at what pace. Be clear about reporting requirements, monitoring and evaluation frameworks. It is all part of the shared understanding and no surprises that build trust.

The evidence is unfolding of the incremental benefits that accrue by developing an ecosystem that includes peer-level private sector engagement. Guidelines must follow to harness the opportunities and offset any concerns, and I applaud the Global Partnership for its leadership in advancing such guidelines.

Learn more on this timely topic at the Global Partnership event ‘Reinvigorating Effectiveness for the 2030 Agenda’ in Paris on 11-12 September 2018.