Dec
19

Getting to Zero: On the Ebola Frontline

  • "It seems very hard to stop this now, but I think we all just have to believe that it is possible." (Norwegian epidemiologist, p. xvii)

Within development studies literature there is a sub-genre of memoires, biographies and dairies. Some are troubling to read. Not all are well written. Some are extremely informative. Most present aspects of the sector that are invisible for those outside of it. Daily routines. Successes and failures. Lessons. Lived experiences. I enjoy reading these works. "Getting to Zero: A Doctor and a Diplomat on the Ebola Frontline" (2018) by Sinead Walsh and Oliver Johnson falls in this sub-genre and is well worth a read. The book is quite long (422 pages), so I will not attempt a summary. Rather, a few parts that I think are worth sharing:

On training: "The second problem with Ebola trainings was that they fell into the 'training the trainers' trap, another common fault of aid programmes. The logic here was that an expert, often an international consultant flown in for the task, could provide a brief training to a selection of local staff brought together from across the country. These staff would then 'cascade' this training to their colleagues after returning home. Whilst this may be effective in some specific situations, generally a few hours or a few days of classroom-based teaching simply does not give someone enough knowledge or hands-on experience of a complex real-world challenge for them to be able to undertake it independently or teach it to others" (p. 52).

Learning in emergencies: "Key to any process of community engagement is respect. This meant being willing to sit down, listen, and then have a conversation with communities to find compromises between our preferred biomedical strategies and what they felt they could actually do. It took us a long time to get to that. Much of the community engagement in the early months was one-way, telling people what to do rather than understanding the kinds of challenges they faced and what ideas they had for how to protect themselves." (p. 343)

On roles within humanitarian and development activity: "the question of how assertive to be in a situation like this is at the core of the distinction between development and humanitarian approaches to international aid. The development mindset tends to focus on supporting the country to better serve its population over the long term, and therefore recognizes the importance of being led by the government. After all, it is the government that (usually) has the democratic legitimacy to make decisions about the country's future and is therefore best placed to run the services that aid agencies are looking to strengthen. Mutual respect and a collaborative relationship between the government and the aid agency are key in this kind of approach. As a result, timelines are usually slower than if aid agencies implement services directly. A humanitarian approach can sometimes appear to be the exact opposite. The focus in an emergency situation is not on long-term improvements to government systems but on immediate relief for those in need. There is a strong sense of urgency, and aid agencies will sometimes take control, with only a token consultation with the government, so that rapid decisions can be made. Humanitarian budgets can be quite large, allowing the swift hiring of additional staff and the bringing in of supplies for the short-term effort." (p. 66-67)

Pointing fingers: "Paul Farmer has written extensively about the tendency of people in the aid system to over-focus on weak accountability in developing countries, rather than questioning the role of developed countries, either today or historically. This is both about weak accountability within their international aid systems and about how they often contribute to corruption in developing countries." (p. 361)

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Sep
03

Navigation by Judgement

In development studies and practice we can get excited by new ideas, and over-stretch them. Participation was a cure all, then it became tyranny, and now we have more informed 'split ladders' that help determine when, where, why and how participation can work well. The rise of results- and evidence-based decision making was at its peak (the randomistas ran the day), there emerged naysayers, and now we have 'navigation by judgment' – an assessment of thousands of evaluations to understand when, where, why and how top-down processes work (and alternatively when more flexible approaches are warranted).

Enter Dan Honig's "Navigation by Judgment: Why and When Top-Down Management of Foreign Aid Doesn't Work" (2018). He writes that the argument "is not, then, that Navigation by Judgement is always superior; nor is it that Navigation by Judgement allows IDOs [international development organizations] to improve their absolute level of performance as environments become less predictable or projects less verifiable. It is simply that Navigation by Judgment is sometimes a good idea, particularly as contexts become harder to navigate using top-down controls and measurement… Navigation by Judgement is a second-best strategy – a strategy to employ when it is less bad than the distortions and constraints of top-down control" (p. 9).

A mixed method approach found that there is "strong evidence that Navigation by Judgement is frequently, but not always, useful. We have evidence that at least some of what determined when Navigation by Judgment is useful relates to the nature of the environment and the tractability of the project to top-down controls, which in practice often means reporting against quantitative output targets… As predicted, econometric analysis drawing on the PPD – the world's largest database of development project outcomes – suggests there are greater returns to Navigation by Judgement in less predictable environments. This is not because Navigation by Judgment actually leads projects to be more successful as predictability falls. Greater propensity to Navigate by Judgment simply cushions the falls, with high Navigation by Judgment-prone IDO performance declining less as environmental predictability rises" (p. 133).

Ideas on where different approaches might be suitable? Consider sectors: "from 2000 to 2012, 64.9 percent of all rigorous evaluations focused on the health sector with an additional 23.1 percent of studies focused on the education sector. By contrast, on 3.3 percent of studies focused on attempts to improve public-sector management. This is quite probably because it is very difficult to identify a plausible counterfactual and/or externally verifiable outcome measures for many public-sector management projects. Some of the same factors make Navigation by Judgement more beneficial for a particular project also make impact evaluations more difficult, precluding an econometrically rigorous examination of a particular project's results. Navigation by Judgement is most helpful where rigorous evaluation is most difficult and where rigorous evaluation is the least likely to build a robust knowledge base" (p. 153).

Ways forward? "One way forward is for an IDO attempting to implement a project that is difficult to effectively manage using measurement of either outputs or outcomes is simple, if somewhat radical, for IDOs: Stop using measures for the purposes of evaluating interventions or managing agents. There is no need to eliminate measurement; measures simply need to be repurposed. Measures can still be good for organizational learning. Learning is often put forward as a primary goal of IDO evaluation. International development organizations could deepen this focus on learning, sometimes putting aside the use of measures as tools of management control" (p. 155).

However, it is not always as easy to do so. "Moving toward greater Navigation by Judgment where appropriate is not without challenges; changing organizational management strategy involves risk for those IDO managers and political authorizers who might push for its adoption. But these risks need to be weighed against the benefits of better performance. To do otherwise is to condemn some foreign aid efforts to meaningless numbers and a façade of success that does little for aid's intended beneficiaries. In many contexts, political authorizers and IDOs are likely to achieve better development results by simply letting go" (p. 168).

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May
23

PhD & Post-doc: Education in Remote Settings

Post-docs and PhD studentship: Education Systems, Aspiration and Learning in Remote Rural Settings (Lesotho, India, Laos)

Brunel University London is seeking to appoint two post-doctoral research fellows and one PhD student to work on the above project. (A further Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship will be advertised shortly at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague.) The research, which is funded by the ESRC-DFID 'Raising Learning Outcomes' scheme and led by Dr Nicola Ansell (Brunel), Dr Peggy Froerer (Brunel), Dr Roy Huijsmans (ISS) and Prof Ian Rivers (Strathclyde), will examine the relationship between aspiration and schooling in remote rural areas of Lesotho, India and Laos. The post-doctoral research fellows will each be employed for 18 months (starting 1st July 2016 or as soon as possible thereafter) and will spend approximately 9months in the field, conducting ethnographic research in two remote rural schools and their surrounding communities. They will collaborate with our local partners and will also undertake literature reviews, policy analysis and be involved in the analysis of research findings from across the project and dissemination to academic and policy audiences.

The PhD student will conduct related research on education and aspiration in remote rural areas. Ideally, this will connect closely with, and link together, the research undertaken in the three case studies. It may involve ethnographic research in one or more of the three settings, or in a fourth country, or it might instead focus on wider policy issues that cross-cut national contexts. Candidates must have a first class or upper second class Honours degree (or equivalent qualification) in Human Geography, Anthropology or a related social science discipline. It is expected that applicants will also hold (or will be completing) a relevant Masters degree and will have experience of undertaking qualitative research.

More details.

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