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Innovation and development

Kanika Bahl pulls back the curtain on innovation in development

The CEO of Evidence Action wants us to rethink how we know what works in international development.

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Chief Innovation Officer, International Rescue Committee
Director of Innovation Strategy, International Rescue Committee

Joining us for our first-ever live taping of Displaced, at Devex World 2018, is Kanika Bahl. Bahl is the CEO of Evidence Action, an organization that incubates, prototypes and evaluates development interventions to fight global poverty. Their tagline is, “We measurably reduce the burden of poverty for hundreds of millions of people ... and we have the data to prove it.” Evidence Action’s school-based deworming initiative, for example, has reached over 275 million children in partnership with governments in India, Kenya, Ethiopia, Vietnam, and Nigeria. Deworming has been shown to improve school attendance, even among children who have not been treated.

Evidence Action’s model and mission are borne on an upswell of enthusiasm for impact evaluations in humanitarian aid and international development. Impact evaluations can tell us whether a specific intervention has resulted in the hypothesized outcome. The gold standard of impact evaluation is the randomized controlled trial, a research design in which treatment and control groups are randomly assigned. In 2000, none of the papers on international development published in the five top academic journals featured randomized controlled trials. Just 10 years later, fully one-third of papers in the same group used RCTs in their research design. The tool has sparked controversy in the sector:

On one side, some economists argue that RCTs are viewed with more awe than they deserve, and that their results can be as flawed as other evaluation tools. On the other hand, RCT proponents say that transparent, evidence-based trials are making development more accountable, responsive, and effective. Researchers wielding RCTs have debunked the so-called microfinance revolution and overturned the conversation around asset transfers to show time and again that cash is king.

Left to right: Kanika Bahl, Grant Gordon, Ravi Gurumurthy

Bahl and her team select promising prototypes to evaluate from a slew of candidates, looking for ideas with the most potential to scale to the tune of hundreds of millions of people. They analyze the cost-effectiveness, the funding landscape, and, of course, the evidence. It is these factors that make Bahl more skeptical about seeing scalable solutions to ending child marriage as opposed to ending child diarrhea.

Child marriage is “quite cultural ... quite specific to a subset of areas,” while the causes and cures of childhood diarrhea, the second-biggest killer of children, are more generalizable. “A problem that has a very diverse and diffused impact may be something where it's harder to get to scale,” she tells Grant and Ravi.

With school based deworming ... the seeds of that scale were in the initial idea itself. There was evidence that deworming improved the livelihoods over time of the children who received it, and improved educational outcomes. But the innovation was really … delivering it to schools. That was really … the innovation which allowed us to take it to scale.

We speak with Bahl on how to evaluate impact and scale programs in fragile states where the government may be an unreliable or incapable partner; why the development sector needs more innovation in delivering services rather than product design; and the unintended consequences of international development programming keeping Bahl up at night.

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Related Reading

Can Randomized Trials Eliminate Global Poverty? — Nature, Jeff Tollefson

End The Evaluation Wars: A Plea to Shift the Abstract to the Specific — Center for Global Development, William Savedoff

Will RCT Change Anyone’s Mind? Should It?— Center for Global Development, Mauricio Romero, Justin Sandefur and Wayne Aaron Sandholtz

Mapping The Deworming Wars: What the Public Should Take Away from the Scientific Debate About Mass Deworming — Center for Global Development, Justin Sandefur and Michael Clemens

Economists are prone to fads, and the latest is machine learning —The Economist

Interested in learning more about what went behind this episode? Check out Airbel’s Medium.

Opinions and views expressed by guests are their own and do not reflect those of the International Rescue Committee.