Examining a different “why” in development, aid, and girls

I was in London last week at the behest of the Nike Foundation and DFID for what I’m told was a very unique event, the first of its kind, on the status of adolescent girls in the world. It was a whirlwind couple of days with lots of amazing conversations, lots of confusing conversations, and lots of learning. My coauthor and I were both struck by the tremendous amount of experience and wealth of knowledge around that room. I could not have fathomed anything like it before getting on a plane to the UK.

It was definitely the first time I’d ever been in a room like this. 70 people from various development agencies–both funding and programmatic–people who work in the field, people who work in development administration and a few like me, who work with numbers and evidence and research.

At the end of it all, I was totally exhausted. By the time we even finished our first dinner, I was curious as to whether I would make it through the rest of the week, but I left with a much greater sense of the work that is being done and the challenges of implementing the kinds of programs and collecting the data I study. I hope that practitioners also left with some insight into how they can make my job of evaluating easier.

Given that the work we produced for this conference was on using social norms to reduce societal discrimination against girls, I spent a lot of time this week thinking about the “why?” I don’t mean the “why are we here?” or “why are we doing this kind of research?” I think the community convened this week has a very clear idea of why they think this research is important, though I think they have a harder sell to some of those that fund it. I mean the why rather in a sense of why does this work? And why doesn’t it work? I think a lot that was discussed is about “what works” and “how should we proceed” and the other why is actually very important if we’re concerned about expansion, replication, and scale.

What works is only so useful a question in development if you are looking at comparable populations, comparable implementers, comparable geographies, and similarly changing economies. That’s almost impossible. But if we can say this works, and this works because of they way it interacts with more global phenomena–like desire to conform to a group, or desire not to be embarrassed–, that helps us figure out how to take it somewhere else. Because then the question of how to effect the same behavior change in another environment becomes not “what worked over there?” but rather “how does the mechanism through which we achieved change there come to work over here?”

I grant that it’s a more complicated question. And it may seem silly coming from me compared to someone with decades of experience in the field, but I do think there are big contributions to come from social norms research and other mechanisms. There are several avenues to be explored, but it’s nice to have a bit of a grasp on one of them.

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