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.

Sadly avoiding Nairobi this week…

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

African perspectives on Kenyan election

Next week’s presidential election in Kenya is being closely monitored both because it is the first under its new constitution, because democratic institutions are still in their infancy across Africa, because the last election resulted in so much bloodshed, and a few of the leading candidates are scheduled to stand trial in the Hague for crimes against humanity. The New York Times has been covering pretty closely, but I thought it was worth taking a look at how the election is being viewed from various African perspectives.

AU: The African Union is sending the former president of Mozambique, Joaquim Chissano, to lead a team that will monitor the Kenyan elections, part of its ongoing efforts to promote democratic processes.

Uganda relies heavily on the port of Mombasa for imports and exports, so post-election violence in Kenya could significantly harm the Ugandan economy. The tea industry in particular has expanded in recent years, with farmers planting more acres and new factories rising to process the crops to take advantage of high prices on the international market.

Ugandan security officials have also been monitoring the situation, partially in response to the severe fuel shortage that struck Uganda during Kenya’s post-election violence in 2008.

However, Ugandans have also discussed what Kenya’s first presidential debates and planned devolution could mean for Uganda. To date, President Musaveni has not shown any interest in participating in a debate, and there has not been sufficient political pressure to encourage him to engage in open discussion with any opponents.

Although the presidential candidates in Tanzania participated in a debate during the 1995 election, Tanzania has not held such a debate since then. Due to the perceived success of the Kenyan debates, several Tanzanian politicians and members of the media have expressed an interest in trying to implement one during the next campaign season.

Within Kenya, foreigners and immigrants are preparing for potential disruptions to their businesses. Shops in the city of Kisumu, located in the home province of candidate Raila Odinga, were looted and vandalized following the previous election, so shopkeepers, many of South Asian descent, are boarding up their stores and staying closed for at least two days after the election.

The United States has said it will be neutral, and President Obama recorded a video message urging the Kenyan people to refrain from violence in this election. The video was widely covered by Kenyan media.

Monitoring and evaluation job opportunity with Twaweza, East Africa

I met with Rakesh Rajani, Head of Twaweza, yesterday in Nairobi. He is looking for a newLearning, Monitoring and Evaluation manager who would report to him. They want to hire a highly skilled individual with a minimum of an MA, and a PhD is preferred. Sounds like a very neat job (and our research team would be working closely with whomever he hires, so I have high hopes that he will identify someone great).

A full job description is attached here.

“Venture Capital” approach to accountability initiatives in East Africa

Duncan Green recently posted about a promising and straightforward approach to developing effective interventions in Tanzania, which he likens to a venture capital model. Oxfam and other donors sponsored a set of projects designed to build accountability largely through various awareness campaigns, and within a relatively short time, relevant donors and stakeholders convened themselves to review the projects. Of particular note, they killed off the ones that seemed to not be working.

Seems logical, I know. But surprisingly rare in the development world where the incentives and timetables are often set up to recognize failure only after millions of dollars and hours have been invested.

I certainly would not advocate that development projects should be subject to the types of quarterly performance expectations which often drive publicly traded companies towards pathological investment patterns. Many projects, by design, take a long time to implement and observable change may not be immediate. A bad quarter doesn’t mean that a project is a failure. But, rapid assessment and feedback, including learning from problems, mistake assumptions, etc., seems to be an obviously good strategy. The challenge is to mobilize relevant evaluators to invest the time and energy to reflect quickly and for project implementers to be willing and able to digest the feedback.

Green highlights some of the key lessons learned from failures:

What didn’t work and why?

Geography: The active musicians were not able to work well in Ngorongoro, because the communities were too widely dispersed to reach.

Government obstruction: The community radio never got off the ground because the government did not issue a licence.

Informal v formal power: The farmer animators’ work was unsuccessful in spreading awareness beyond the groups that the animators belonged to. This might have been due to their lack of a ‘formal’ position in community leadership.

Attitudes to youth: Students were able to make demands within their schools, but were unable to take this approach into the community– there was simply not enough respect for young people’s viewpoints.

I’d be curious to hear more about how well the initially successful projects (i.e., those that didn’t get axed) were able to incorporate the new information from the failures and whether this led to better outcomes overall.

Twaweza offices flooded

I was sorry to hear that the Twaweza offices in Dar es Salaam were flooded last week — causing no injuries, but severe property damage. Twaweza is an organization I have been working with since the beginning of the year (on a project along with Dan Posner and Lily Tsai), and their main goal is to empower citizens in Africa to improve their lives, particularly in areas such as education, water provision, and health. From the update on their website, it sounds like good citizens did a great job of evacuating people and cleaning things up. But I wish them luck in getting things back in order to continue their important work early in 2012.

Metrosexual in Tanzania

Apparently, male grooming is becoming all the rage in Dar.

There is a new kind of man on the streets of Tanzania’s biggest cities. In Dar es Salaam, Arusha and Mwanza, these men wear designer clothes, shoes, belts, bracelets, rings and chains. They talk about their new Calvin Klein jeans and Fila shoes and see no problem in buying a pink floral shirt and wearing it with light-blue sneakers…