The long walk to evidence-informed development

How networks and relationship support the use of evidence by decision-makers in international development


By Laurenz Langer

The international development business circle generates and deconstructs solutions for global poverty and inequality in a reoccurring pattern. Between the celebration of perceived magic bullets interventions, the realisation of their not quite so revolutionary impact and subsequent fading into the background, to the intervention’s reinvention under a different name, passes sometimes little more than a decade. Integrated rural development programmes failed to foster agricultural development in the 80s. Regardless, they were implemented to much fanfare under a different name in the early 2000s – Millennium Development Villages.

This faddism in development policy poses a fundamental challenge to effective policymaking: if collective knowledge and thought in international development is not built accumulative, and rather yesterday’s experiences and lessons are disregarded in favour of today’s latest trends and fashionable programmes, development policy and practice is set to repeat past mistakes. Social policy works through a series of incremental changes; and this ongoing process of aggregating and configuring effective programme mechanisms and contexts is seriously challenged by the repeated quest for magic bullet interventions and one-stop policy blueprints. Further, learning is not helped either by the fact that the acknowledgement that programmes might have the potential to do harm is close to sacrilege in an industry founded on the principles of ‘doing good’.

Development policy and practice subsequently faces a systematic challenge to learn and to generate an accumulative body of knowledge. In absence of such a systematic knowledge base of what works, how, and why, it is unsurprising that there is little confidence to engage with ‘irreversible policy decisions’ or its antidote – the determined and sustained scale-up of a limited portfolio of policies.

Driven by a number of international initiatives (3ie; JPALIPA) in the last decade, large progress has been made to enhance the knowledge base in international development. Increasingly though, it is realised that evidence-informed development – that is the systematic and transparent use of scientific knowledge in the formulation, design, and implementation of development policies and programmes – requires an equal progress in formulating mechanisms that support the use of development research. Only through an effective interplay between a relevant, high-quality research supply and an active policy demand for such evidence, can an institutionalised practice of evidence-informed development emerge.

The latter issue of demand has been rather underexplored often citing a false dichotomy between the worlds of academia and government. In South Africa as in many countries across the continent (Uganda &  Zimbabwe), there is an endogenous drive between research and policy communities to bridge the evidence to policy divide. The Africa Evidence Network, for example, is such an initiative. Conceived as a community of practice, this network brings together policymakers and researchers concerned about evidence-informed decision-making in public policy on the continent. The network recently organised the largest evidence to policy event in Africa, gathering over 120 senior policymakers, researchers, and development practitioners for a week in Johannesburg.

Such vibrant evidence-informed decision-making community is itself evidence – albeit anecdotal – that there is an underlying willingness to improve the research to policy interface in Africa. A key factor seems to be that the research and policy communities in many African countries are closely intertwined and individuals from both communities are well connected with each other. In Malawi, for example, influential decision-makers in academia and government have usually trained at the same tertiary institutions. Personal networks and relationships then lie at the heart of efforts to support the practice of evidence-informed decision-making in international development.

Relationships and networks build trust between researchers and policymakers and nurture the confidence required to enter the for both actors unfamiliar evidence/policy nexus. In the African context, three overarching raison d’être seem to motivate policymakers and researchers to engage in the evidence to policy dialogue. Firstly, and contrary to the overly stark sketched contrast between the research and the policy profession, African researchers and policymakers often face the same challenges: access to data; lack of endogenous constituencies for evidence; departmental silos rather than multi-disciplinary work; resource and time constraints are all too familiar to both communities.

Secondly, given the persistent local social and economic challenges in Africa, both policymakers and researchers share a contextualised and uniting vision to jointly work towards. As a result, there is often a greater consensus between researchers and policymakers on the desirable outcomes of public policies. Thirdly, common challenges in face of a shared vision naturally provide a conducive environment to work together. This active desire for collaboration manifests itself in communities of practice and networking initiatives such as the AEN.

At the 2014 Africa Evidence Network Colloquium Collette Clark from the Department of Public Service and Administration in South Africa compared the implementation of evidence-free public policies to ‘jumping out of a plane without a parachute’ . African policymakers striving to implement the most beneficial policies in a context of limited public resources and large social and economic needs often actively want to engage with research evidence. However, such research needs to be locally relevant and policymakers ideally are allowed some degree of ownership through ongoing involvement in the research, in particular when the research concerns expensive and popular public policies. African researchers and research institutions are best posed to generate this research evidence.

The personal relationships and networks between policymakers and researchers in Africa provide one of the most effective mechanisms to construct a vibrant evidence to policy ecosystem. Evidence-informed development policies are more likely to lead to relevant and effective social outcomes for people living in poverty. Increasingly, support for evidence-informed development should be targeted less on the supply of evidence but rather invest in the sustained relationships and networks of policymakers and researchers in order to ensure the systematic and transparent use of evidence.