At the Monkey Cage:
I am on my way home from the Twaweza evaluators’ conference in Dar es Salaam… literally on my way, posting this on the second leg of my air journey to JFK, having departed Dubai around 4am… which suggests that now even international air travel offers no respite from the distractions of the web. But I digress.
The meeting was really extraordinary in so many ways. Twaweza’s Learning, Monitoring, and Evaluation manager, Varja Liposvek, brought together several evaluation teams — including the “LPT” team (Lieberman, Dan Posner and Lily Tsai), the AIID team from University of Amsterdam (Chris Elbers and Jan Willem Gunning), and James Habyarimana, who represented his Georgetown-based team. And a new JPAL/IPA project was presented by Twaweza’s Youdi Schipper. The approximately 40 attendees included various managers from within the organization; and a host of researchers and development specialists, including from the World Bank, Innovations for Poverty Action, Oxfam, the International Budget Project, the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, and DFID.
Although the room contained many distinct perspectives, the conversation was unified around a willingness to rigorously question every proposition, including how to conceptualize and to measure the intervention and associated outcomes, and how to judge the quality of evidence. I have attended many similar events, in which the attendees also came from different perspectives, and this one was remarkable for the unified willingness to engage constructively.
The first day of the conference involved hearing from the various evaluation teams, including ours, and in all cases, the studies are not yet complete. LPT and AIID have actually been evaluating Twaweza’s work, in the case of LPT by focusing on their education initiative, Uwezo. The other projects have initiated RCT’s to test related propositions that will inform future work. It was an extremely useful discussion and rewarding for us to see the care and attention with which our client was listening to and keeping track of these studies and thinking about ways to incorporate the findings into their mission.
Along these lines, more extraordinary from my perspective, was the second day — in which Twaweza’s director, Rakesh Rajani, announced to us all — look, we remain devoted to Twaweza, we know that these evaluations are not complete and only evaluate parts of what we do… but we also know from these studies, and from our experience and intuition to date, that much of what we are doing is not having the impact we would like. So let’s not simply keep doing the same thing; let’s make some substantial adjustments to better position ourselves for success.
In this regard, Twaweza is in a uniquely favorable position as compared with most NGO’s. I don’t know all of the specifics, but Twaweza’s donors appear to have a pretty long and patient time horizon. Unlike the average NGO, which is constantly fighting for its own survival, and under severe pressure to demonstrate quick results, Twaweza can afford to admit they didn’t have all the right answers before they started.
Again, particularly gratifying from the perspective of development/evaluation researchers was the stated commitment (and I’ll report back to see if this happens) to incorporate evaluators to a much greater extent in both the theorizing and design of their work going forward. (That willingness was not part of the first stage…) We now all have a basis for thinking about what doesn’t work and some intuition about why, and hopefully, this will allow both Twaweza and the evaluators to make some better and more focused bets about what might have the desired impact on the key outcomes of citizen agency and service delivery.
I learned a great deal from the workshop. That said, I wouldn’t yet bet my home that Twaweza will achieve its goals or that we or any of the other evaluation teams will be able to detect any treatment effects from research that we might design going forward. The core mission of trying to increase citizen agency and improve development outcomes through information provision is a challenging one. But I think that Twaweza has already set a valuable example for researchers and development practitioners in terms of how to engage in a manner that sparks careful, creative, and critical thinking, incorporating necessary theoretical and practical concerns. I’m glad that 50 hours of flying and brief abandonment of my family was not in vain.
I was scheduled to fly out to Nairobi this Saturday night to do 3 days of work, including some social science research methods training to the Uwezo staff, before heading to Dar es Salaam for a multi-day conference with the various teams that have been working on the Twaweza initiative. In light of the awful attack on the Westgate Mall, a place I have frequented several times, and the fact that it was not absolutely essential to be in Nairobi, we decided to bypass Kenya altogether. I’ll go “straight” (i.e., with two other layovers) to Tanzania instead. Notwithstanding the pleas from the Standard Newspaper against international travel advisories… my inbox piled up this morning with lots of them and frankly, I just couldn’t justify to myself or to my family a good reason for entering the fray in the midst of all that’s going on, especially since it would likely be impossible to be very productive. But I’m disappointed to not be going to Nairobi, and more so that Kenyans are taking it on the chin once again.
Meanwhile, I know it’s 2013, but I’m still dumbstruck by the ubiquitous nature of communications technology and social media during a terrorist attack. Seems as if many citizens at the scene, despite threats to life and body, have been using their smartphones to broadcast images from the mall. Shabaab and the Kenyan military have been exchanging public tweets about who has the upper hand in the standoff. CNN writes, “ Are you in Nairobi? Send us your images and experiences, but please stay safe.” Unfortunately, the spectacle and global stage of violence almost certainly makes it a more appealing strategy for the very groups who perpetrated these heinous acts.
P.S. I know I have been a delinquent blogger for quite some time. I really don’t know how these folks with full time jobs can manage to blog so frequently… but perhaps the Fall will bring greater inspiration and speedy fingers in generating blog-worthy posts. I am likely to tweet more frequently at @evlieb
As part of our ongoing work with Uwezo in Kenya, Dan Posner, Lily Tsai and I commissioned two great Ph.D. students — Brandon de la Cuesta (Princeton) and Leah Rosenzweig (MIT) — to help us learn more about what citizens in rural Kenya are doing (or not doing) to exercise their rights as citizens, particularly in the primary education sector. Much of our initial research during the first couple of years of our work on this project has showed virtually no effects from information campaigns, and we thought it was important to get a fuller understanding of the range of actions citizens can and do take. But we concluded that additional closed-ended surveys would not be the way to go, because frankly, we were concerned that we might not be asking the right questions.
So, we sent Brandon and Leah off for a few months of field research, working with our senior project manager, Jessica Grody, and various Uwezo staff, to conduct more open-ended interviews, conduct focus groups, and simply observe what is going on, in order to try to generate some better ideas for our ongoing research concerning what types of information might drive active citizenship. Their findings will help drive our future research agenda on this project, and in the meantime, they just shared with me a few pics from their days in the field.
I’m happy to report that this article, co-authored with Gwyneth McClendon, was recently published in Comparative Political Studies and is now available for your reading pleasure. I paste the abstract below, but the punchline is that even when we control for all sorts of individual-level and contextual factors, African citizen policy preferences vary quite systematically along ethnic lines. We think this has important implications for how we understand the working of ethnic politics, and the challenges of governance under certain types of ethnic diversity.
The Ethnicity–Policy Preference Link in Sub-Saharan Africa
Scholars have begun to investigate the mechanisms that link ethnic diversity to low levels of public goods provision but have paid only minimal attention to the role of preferences for public policies. Some argue that ethnic groups hold culturally distinctive preferences for goods and policies, and that such differences impede effective policy making, but these studies provide little evidence to support this claim. Others argue that preferences do not vary systematically across ethnic groups, but again the evidence is limited. In this article, we engage in a systematic exploration of the link between ethnic identity and preferences for public policies through a series of individual and aggregated analyses of Afrobarometer survey data from 18 sub-Saharan African countries. We find that in most countries, preferences do vary based on ethnic group membership. This variation is not merely an expression of individual-level socioeconomic differences or of group-level cultural differences. Instead, we suggest that citizens use ethnicity as a group heuristic for evaluating public policies in a few predictable ways: We find more persistent disagreement about public policies between politically relevant ethnic groups and where group disparities in wealth are high.
The Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa played a pivotal role in that country’s transition away from apartheid rule. Two “white liberals” – Alex Borraine and the late Frederick van Zyl Slabbert – left their jobs as members of parliament in order to meet with exiled members of the African National Congress in various remote locations. Out of the spotlight of the media and everyday politics, they helped negotiate a series of ice-breakers between the white and black elites, initiating a set of discussions that would pave the way for Mandela’s release and the writing of a new constitution. Of course, many factors made such meetings possible, including the challenges and protests of so many ordinary citizens in South Africa and abroad, but few serious observers of that country’s history would discount the importance of these early, secretive, get-to-know-you retreats.
Following Mandela’s release, the unbanning of the ANC, and the first multi-racial elections, it was not exactly clear what role various anti-apartheid organizations might play given that their core mandates no longer seemed relevant. In the case of Idasa, it transformed itself in name (but not acronym) to be an organization that would help South African citizens build this new democracy with various information, awareness and monitoring functions. (Steven Friedman correctly highlights that the simple bridge-building work of the original Idasa is still needed today.)
Back in the early 1990s, I was lucky to meet a few of Idasa’s key program managers, including Robert Mattes, who would run the Public Opinion Service; and Warren Krafchik, who directed the Budget Information Service. These projects conducted pioneering research on citizen attitudes and the emerging budget process, and they communicated their findings to scholars, policy-makers, and ordinary citizens. A few years later, while I was a doctoral student at UC Berkeley, these folks kindly allowed me to serve as an intern in their units, provided me a desk and an internet connection, and most importantly, allowed me to be a part of the organization.
My year was personally and professionally inspiring. The period 1997-8 was surely the height of the post-apartheid “honeymoon,” the year following the Springbok win of the Rugby World Cup (now of Invictus fame). Idasa had purchased a marvelous old building at 6 Spin Street, right around the corner from the nation’s parliament, the national library, and several key offices of the bureaucracy, including the South African Revenue Service. Each day the building’s corridors came alive with art and performances, as leading politicians and scholars from around the country and around the world stopped in for visits. At morning tea time, as I developed a taste for Rooibos tea many years before it would become an American rage, I learned so much from my colleagues about their respective cultures, and from their work in trying to consolidate democratic practice in this divided society.
In the years to follow, Idasa continued to generate a great deal of research, including in the area I began to study – HIV/AIDS policy – and the organization would extend the scope of its activities to the entire Southern African region. More recently, I discovered that the Cape Town office closed, and all of the operations were consolidated in the Pretoria office. The organization’s stature was clearly in decline. It was certainly not an activist organization, barely a monitoring organization, perhaps a research outfit, but not quite a think-tank. If donor support fell away, perhaps it was because the organization’s mission had simply become too ambiguous. In late March, the director announced that Idasa would close due to lack of financial support.
On the one hand, I am so sad to hear of this great institution’s fall. I retain just a speck of hope that some angel donor will come in to resuscitate this once giant. On the other hand, perhaps I should just pay tribute to its incredibly important legacy, which gave hope to the most brilliant political story that I’ve observed in my lifetime – one which continues to animate my own life and career to this day. In just a few weeks, one of my old Idasa friends, Albert Van Zyl, who now works for our old boss, Warren Krafchik, will present the work of the International Budget Project to my class of Princeton undergraduates learning about the Politics of Development.
I am very proud to have been associated with this distinguished organization. Despite its current lack of a Wikipedia entry(!), I hope its role in contemporary South African history will be sufficiently recognized.
There is much to admire about South Africa’s relative progress and stability in the almost nineteen years since its first multiracial election, but its school system is truly an embarrassment. Despite the country’s upper-middle-income classification, many areas that were formerly designated as so-called “homelands” (i.e., the Transkei and Ciskei), resemble the poorest areas of many of Africa’s poorest countries.
I paste below a link to a wonderful but depressing story about the dismal state of Eastern Cape schools — sometimes referred to as the “mud schools” because several are made of mud. It highlights how the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) has been working to protect children’s rights to education, suing the government to provide appropriate resources. It should not be necessary to litigate for decent schools for the poorest kids, but at least that avenue is available and seems to have had some impact.