Successful Twaweza evaluators’ workshop

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.

The challenge of building trust amidst rampant fraud

Few scams are more detestable than those that involve fake drugs for major diseases, especially in poor countries. This week, the Mail and Guardian reported on the problem of counterfeit malaria medicines:

Some of the fake drugs contain artemisinin, but not enough to kill all the parasites in a child’s body. Not only will the child struggle to recover, but the parasites that survive may become resistant to the drug and spread a form of the disease that ACTs (artemisinin combination therapy) will no longer cure.

Such scams make an epidemic worse, hurt the people who use them, and erode already thin trust in the idea that medicines and public health schemes can improve individual- and collective well-being.

Meanwhile, in Kenya, the Daily Nation reported on mobile phone scams of a type that our Uwezo-evaluation research team heard about in various villages last summer. Because Kenya has a very sophisticated technology for transferring money via mobile phone accounts, fraudsters have sent fake SMS messages telling people they have won a prize, and tricked victims into transferring their own money.

We found that citizens were increasingly ignoring all unsolicited messages, assuming that none of them could be trusted. It would not be surprising if some followed suit by reducing their use of this wonderful technology for financial transactions.

In order for most new technologies to realize their potential for improving human well-being, they must be trusted by citizens within society. In the U.S., there’s not much threat to online banking because of the occasional unsolicited email from the Nigerian lottery commission. But where the use of internet- and bio-medical technologies are still in their infancy, similar scams have the potential to wreak substantial and lasting havoc.

Mbeki down on twitter

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki — often perceived as overly-intellectual and removed from the people during his tenure — made disparaging comments this week about Twitter, as well as other forms of internet-based communications.

If you want to discuss knowledge which has got to do with the betterment of society I don’t think it (twitter) is appropriate.

Even the internet in general, blogging and so on, is not the place where you can put all these things under theories.

Well… as I am writing here on a blog, one that sends out auto-tweets, maybe I should be offended. He’s certainly right that some bad information can get spread pretty quickly in the unregulated blogo-twitter-sphere — which relates to my earlier post about concerns for false weather reports. But given all of the fantastic ways in which Africans are beginning to use information technology and social media to improve their lives, once again, Mbeki is missing the big picture. Ironically, he developed his own absolutely wacky fascination with radical theories of HIV and AIDS treatment through discoveries he made on the web. So maybe this statement is a backhanded mea culpa?


I Paid a Bribe: Kenyan Website

I PAID A BRIBE is a neat site that allows Kenyan citizens to report where they must pay bribes, to which sector, and for how much. The initiative is modeled on an Indian site, where concerns about corruption have been central to political debate in recent years.

Although one might worry that such a site might allow individuals to carry out personal vendettas, according to the story in Kenya’s Daily Nation, it strips away names of bribe-taking officials. Undoubtedly this will cause some consternation among various political leaders, bureaucrats, and police — who so far are reported to be the most prolific bribe-takers — and they will try to find ways to discredit the information generated.

I continue to be attracted to the proposition that more information will promote greater government accountability, which is the heart of the Twaweza model. But the question is whether the data generated will be new information for any Kenyans (so far, the comments on the site highlight simply that citizens think corruption is being under-reported) and what might be done with the information? I love the idea, but it’s not yet clear to me that hard numbers will be more effective than general perceptions in changing patterns of graft in government. Perhaps the most promising use of these data would be if they were able to conclusively demonstrate a reduction in corruption, resulting from some other anti-corruption initiative.

Real social ties and social movements

Tina Rosenberg has a great piece –  Friends in Revolution — in which she discusses her skepticism about the power of internet-based social networks to be agents for  political change  in the absence of real social ties. She highlights that a new tool, Friendfactor, combined social media with real friendships in the campaign for gay marriage. She highlights that the notion of a Twitter Revolution in Iran and the role of Facebook in Egypt may have been overplayed (though she doesn’t provide concrete evidence of this…)

All of this sounds right to me. I share her skepticism that people are going to risk their lives in protest simply because others in an online community have said they would do the same. One needs to feel some type of fundamental personal attachment to at least a few other people who are personally known and trusted before making such sacrifices. Of course, real friendships and connections may be initiated and developed online, but the types of links that inspire personal sacrifice are rarely made instantaneously. Before we take for granted the “power” of facebook and other forms of social media, we should consider the extent to which the most prominent examples — Tahir square, etc — were rooted in networks of more private and analog connections between people.

Connectivity in Kenya

I am sitting here in my very simple hotel room in Rongo town in Western Kenya, looking over notes for the start of our field research later this week. I have been surfing the net without problem using a 3G card that is much cheaper than anything one could do in the U.S. And after years and years of using cell phones in Africa, I still can’t get over that I can call home with a crysal clear connection. But as I am going through some of the census data we have for this area, it appears that in 2009, more than 95% of people in this area responded “never” to the question of how often they use the internet. To be certain, Kenya has been blazing ahead in terms of information technology, and their cell-phone based payment system (m-pesa) sets international standards. And perhaps in our surveys, we will find that the uptake has grown since then — but I’ve heard that this is unlikely. People around here are  simply not exposed to the incredibly rich content that is actually already available. This is a digital divide that ought to be bridgeable.

Political campaigns online in SA

May 18 election hours away – The Star. Apparently President Zuma only started tweeting last week, while the DA leader Helen Zille has been doing it throughout the campaign. A recent survey shows 56.6 percent of registered and likely voters supporting the ANC, but the DA leads in its “online strategies” (I don’t know how they measure that… maybe followers online?)