Aside

delhi’s #oddeven plan had a significant effect on pollution

agree that this is a potentially good sign about individual citizens being willing to engage in collective action – note also that many were most excited about lessened traffic, which is a good reason to think about inspiring collective action in ways that bring about both a public good and a private gain, allowing the pursuit of direct and indirect policy goals. my sense is there is still a long way to go in convincing people that the pollution is a problem and getting worse.

Suvojit Chattopadhyay

Researchers Michael Greenstone, Santosh Harish and Anant Sudarshan have some news for us. Hard data that shows that the Odd-Even plan reduced pollution by significant levels in Delhi. The headline: this study finds there was an 18% reduction in PM 2.5 due to the pilot during the hours that the rule was in effect. The effect size is truly staggering, and is quite unusual for studies that use such rigorous methodology to look at the impact of policy interventions.

Starting January 1, while absolute pollution levels increased both inside and outside Delhi (for atmospheric reasons, as noted by other commentators), the increase in fine particle levels in Delhi was significantly less than in the surrounding region. Overall, there was a 10-13 per cent relative decline in Delhi.

Around 8 am, the gap between Delhi’s pollution and that in neighbouring regions begins to form and steadily increases until mid afternoon. As temperatures…

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gratitude.

though it feels far less monumental than perhaps it should, i have done the electronic submission of my thesis, which is a big milestone in calling the thing done or, more accurately, me degree-ed, regardless of how much more work there is to do.

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i am sure i have forgotten many people but just in case some people don’t actually get around to checking out the thesis itself — a profound but simple ‘thank you’. here are my acknowledgments:

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a thesis seems like a lone and lonely process, with only data and tea (or stronger) to keep you company, right up until you realize how many people you have to thank. no matter how i’ve tried to keep tabs, i am sure i have forgotten people – if you know you played a role, please give yourself a pat on the back.

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this is an empirical dissertation based almost entirely on primary data, which would not exist without willing respondents. in tamale, this includes many private-sector retailers who gave their time to answer a lot of tiresome questions. these answers, in turn, would not have materialized without the long-standing support of a core survey team, with special thanks to abass adam yidana, damba mohammed majeed, and alidu osman tuunteya. n tuma. in accra, many people not only consented to be interviewed but have been patient guides and kept in touch and helped this thesis over its long trajectory. these include: george amofah, kwabena asante, dennis sena awitty, frank boateng, samuel boateng, alex dodoo, keziah malm, yuniwo nfor, louis nortey, daniel norgbedzie, elianne oei, ellen sam, sylvester segbaya. alex dodoo, and daniel norgbedzie have gone above and beyond. there would literally be no words (or numbers) without you.

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i would have not been in ghana without the trust and support of günther fink and julia raifman and I would not have survived ghana without the moral, emotional, intellectual, and nutritional support and levity of becky antwi, slawa rokicki, mollie barnathan, liz schultz venable, pace phillips, suvojit chattopadhyay, usamatu salifu, salifu amidu, abubakari bukari, lindsey o’shaughnessy, lolo dessein, aqil esmail, michael polansky, sam polley, emmanuel okyere, and rachel strohm. innovations for poverty action-ghana provided much needed infrastructural support and connections; jeff mosenkis has egged me on from headquarters. nathan blanchet has been a guide on ghana and to this whole process.

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this thesis as a completed product would not exist without michael reich. from inspiring the ideas that went in to providing a (mostly) patient guide and forcing me to articulate my own ideas beyond, ahem, “a fucking mess” to something that is hopefully readable and possibly even, with time, enjoyable: thank you. you’ve pulled me back from the brink more than once and words don’t suffice. i know sometimes your papers take up to thirty drafts; this has taken many more and you’ve been there throughout.

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günther fink, jessica cohen, and barbara heil: thank you for keeping me in line and inspired. günther, your enthusiasm, and barbara (mom #2), your persistence, have made a huge difference.

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to the swapportive team of shahira ahmed, corrina moucheraud, pamela scorza, and elif yavuz: thanks for keeping me going on so many levels. corrina moucheraud, in particular, has listened to and read many ideas and drafts that constitute what follows, though with far less brevity than her council. elif, you’ve been there, reminding me that they don’t teach kingdon in europe and that anything i do with it better be good.

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to an assortment of men in cambridge — thank you. john quattrochi, who helped me survive a wide variety of the perils of working abroad to early engagement with ideas (“is that what you’re trying to say?”), to getting my defense in place, to making sure the final touches were set. peter rockers, for your early skepticism and patience. jeremy barofsky, for encouragement, even sometimes by example. guy harling, for answering every stupid question i could think of while only occasionally reminding me that there are no stupid questions, only stupid people. zubin shroff, for listening and read-throughs.

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victoria fan, livia montana, rifat hasan, and jen manne-goehler have been sounding boards of one sort of another at various times.

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to the team at the center for geographic analysis, in particular jeff blossom (near and far!) and sumeeta srinivasan: i would have been lost without you.

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jesse bump and ashley fox have constituted a political economy crisis unit and have pulled me together and pushed me forward on more than one occasion. thanks for being key stakeholders.

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thank you to an intellectually and emotionally supportive community in delhi, with particular thanks to payal hathi, james pickett, and suvojit chattopadhyay for suffering through chapter drafts. bhuvana anand, shreya ray, sangita vyas, urmy shukla, jessica pickett, diane coffey, dean spears, shagun sabarwal, and markus olapade have all engaged with these ideas and the ideas are better for it. subha ganguly shahi and avi kishore have come in with key moral support.

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michael schulman, ian reiley, and liz richardson contributed to this being readable. nikolaos zahariadis and owen barder strengthened ideas. catherine goodman, sarah tougher, melisse murray, prashant yadav, and nora petty have been stand-by and stand-up amfm resources. marcia inhorn and norm daniels have been important mentors and models.

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several coffeeshops and restaurants have provided clean, well-lighted places over the years: trident and render in boston; andala and voltage in cambridge; mike’s and swad in tamale; loulou’s beignets in the woodlands; and maison des desserts, coast café, and latitude in delhi. thank you for the tea refills and unhurried surface area. and seventh heaven in rishikesh for an extended stay and support.

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for my family, thanks for understanding this whole ‘abroad’ thing as best as possible and, in particular, to aunt janet for patient engagement with early drafts of the manuscript.

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finally, a huge thank you to my parents for absolutely everything from the mundane to the massive, from the decision to travel to details to debates to disasters (real and imagined) to deadlines to drafts-upon-drafts to the defense — even though you almost certainly never wanted know a thing about malaria policy in ghana. tusen takk.

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chapter I, for the curious about this thing we’ve built (all mistakes my own).

strategy testing: a start

thanks to craig valters, i was recently pointed towards a new case study in the asia foundation’s working politically in practice series, focused on a ‘new’ approach called strategy testing. overall, i am sympathetic to much of the approach, though since i believe it has much in common with prototyping, product design and refinement, reasonable service delivery, etc, i am not sure if it is a wildly innovative new way of what i think many people would already see as good practice (as also acknowledged on p. 14 of the paper). it is, nevertheless, on its way to being practical.

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the approach and what i like

as i understand it, the approach has three key features.

  1. a commitment to a theory of change as truly a set of hypotheses or best-guesses at a strategy, and therefore a living product. embedded in this is a greater commitment to humility.
  2. better individual tracking (daily? weekly?) of both external events, challenges faced, information received, and decisions taken.
  3. regular meetings (quarterly) of ‘program staff’ to review the theory of change and program approach and to refine as needed.

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my sense is that the authors feel that the third point is the most radical of the suggestions they put forward. i disagree. i think it is point 2, having people take time out of their daily (“good”) work to document and reflect that would represent a much bigger and helpful change in the way development is practiced and will probably require more intensive skill development. future work that documents this more subtle but fundamental shift and makes suggestions to improve practice would be very useful. it shouldn’t be ignored because it is more mundane than the quarterly meetings at which an overhaul might happen.

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overall, the approach represents an important commitment to continual learning as well as accountability in doing work that gets better and closer to success over time. it also moves a theory of change approach much more central to practice, taking it down off the dusty shelf. the approach also raises important questions about funding cycles and the power of the program team to make adjustments (see p. 14 but this should be explored more). one of the most difficult things about adaptive programming, which i do not take up in this post, will be how to make available adaptive budgeting.

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what needs refinement

  • no matter how flexible-iterative-adaptive-dynamic-intractable-complex-unpredictable-otherbuzzwords are the problem and the program and the management approach, there seems to be nothing in this paper to suggest that, say these strategy testing meetings could not happen on a regular, (gasp) planned basis. let’s push the anti-planning reaction only as far as it needs to go (more on this below).

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  • be clear about what is flexible; not everything is or should be. with an approach like strategy testing, it will be important to not make it too easy to redefine successful results (talked about as ‘ultimate outcomes’ in the paper). this matters not just from an accountability perspective (achieving what you said you were going to achieve, even if by a different route or on a different timeline) but also because, presumably, there was some real conviction and merit behind the goals in the first place vis-a-vis development and world-a-better-place-ness (if there wasn’t, then it is an entirely different type of problem with which we are dealing).

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this is a key concern i have with the ‘adaptation’ movement in general: indicators, pathways, strategies, understandings of the problems, and the goals are often problematized and discounted in one breath, which glosses over too much. if all goalposts are movable, it will be quite difficult to deem any programs or strategy as simply unworthy of large resource outlay and let them go extinct.

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in different parts of the paper, the authors say that “it is not possible to identify the outcomes and indicators at the outset of the program,” that “programs start with a broad articulation of the ultimate outcome,” and that “a precise plan of activities that will achieve results cannot be defined from the beginning.” i am more sympathetic to the framing of the second and third of these statements. the first statement seems to confuse humility with tabula rasa ignorance, which i don’t think helps move the conversation forward about how to do program planning better while also putting (structured) adaptation into practice.

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  • define “program teams.” this term is used throughout the paper but it is hard to figure out who it includes, which has implications for how i feel about the approach, as it has implications for whose evidence and insight is deemed important. does it include front-line workers? office-based staff in the capitalif only the latter, the approach currently does not suggest how roadblocks and experiences and suggestions and feedback will be collected from the street-levelyet surely this is critical to a holistic picture of events, roadblocks, and accomplishments — and therefore choosing the path forward. the absence of the semi-systematic feedback from front-line implementers, from intended beneficiaries, from other stakeholders is problematic (distinct from saying all these people need to be physically in the room during strategy testing meetings).

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  • the timeline and the ‘new information,’ ‘external changes,’ and ‘accomplishments and roadblocks’ seem out of sync. if the timeline is to be the key tool for daily or weekly reflection, it needs to move far beyond the sample provided in table 2 (acknowledging the potential for burdening program staff), which focuses on big-P political and high-level eventsone question is who (and how) will be put in charge of documenting such changes, through more regular interaction with stakeholders or more careful monitoring of the news as part of a monitoring strategy. a second and possibly more important question is how a timeline-type tool can be better aligned with the theory of change and require staff to engage with the assumptions therein on a more regular basis. can some of the burden on program staff be relived if m&e (or mel or merl or whatever) teams do regular debriefing interviews with staff? drilling in on these practical, small details of how one might put strategy testing into practice would be hugely useful.

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  • at times, ‘traditional monitoring’ (which itself could be better defined so it is even clearer what strategy testing is being contrasted with or being appended onto) is painted as anachronistic; yet it must still be used in a strategy testing approach. for example, on page 11, the authors note that “by taking multiple small bets and continuously monitoring results, program teams are able to adjust and refine” (emphasis added). this suggests to me that a core set of indicators that measure progress/results towards some ultimate outcome (traditional monitoring?) are likely  in place for much of the project, a reality that sometimes gets lost in the thrust to position strategy testing as an alternative approach to monitoring. it seems like response-to-monitoring rather than monitoring itself is the bigger contribution of strategy testing and, again, sometimes this gets lost in the paper and buzzword barrage.

 

  • a key challenge raised on page 11 is not adequately addressed; the authors note: “whether a program strategy is worthy of continued investment may not be easy to decide.” more in-depth, ex ante discussion of just such decision points (see my series of blogs with suvojit, starting here) and what information will be needed to take such decisions are needed. these would need to be built into any monitoring plan, as part of the information needs for successful strategy testing. as is acknowledged in the paper, “it may be difficult for a team to accept that their strategy is not working and move on to something new, especially when they have invested heavily in that strategy.” this will make it all the more important to have up-front discussions about how to determine when something is not working (which relates to having clear, somewhat steady definitions of success).

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i take away from this paper that being flexible requires planning and commitments, even though at times these are painted in a negative and out-of-sync tone. it requires more managerial planning and commitment to finding time and tools and skills for reflection, to agreeing early on as to how strategic decisions will be made on the basis of evidence gathered, who will weigh in on them, on how success will be defined even if different strategic approaches to achieving it are adopted. this is acknowledged at the end of the paper, in discussing the need for structure and discipline within (and to promote) flexibility. but it should be made much more central to marketing, refining, and disseminating the approach.

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more generally, in the movement towards adaptive and flexible development work, we need to be careful about noting where the changes really need to happen (e.g. on monitoring itself, or on better tailoring monitoring to fit with decision-making needs, or on allowing time and scope to respond to monitoring findings) and where structure and planning are needed, making flexibility/planning and structure/planning complementary rather than contrasting ideas.

more from #evalcon: program planning

disclaimer: i always get quite frustrated when people seem to be reinventing the wheel, especially when at least the contours of the wheel could be found with a reasonable literature review that was somewhat cross-disciplinary (i am pretty sure this is still a reasonable expectation… perhaps part of the problem is that literature is insufficiently open-access?)

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i’ll be blunt: everyone should read just a little more before they speak, realize that they are not necessarily entering uncharted territory (including the realms of program planning, product design, & evaluation), are not great pioneers until they have assessed that for themselves from amongst the existing literature, and need to cite their sources.

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program planning

from a lot of different corners, it seems that people involved in evaluation are suddenly ‘discovering’ that they may have a role to play in programming planning and design, whether facilitating it or doing it more directly. this ranges from frequent topics of conversation at the recent #evalcon in kathmandu to smart policy design by ben olken and others.

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it is a natural enough ‘discovery’ when involved in an evaluation that it may have been helpful if the evaluation team had been involved earlier — say, before the program was designed. that makes sense: folks doing an evaluation tend to get hung up on details that turn out to matter, like operationalizing key concepts and goalposts, clarifying who will do what, what that will look like and how long it will take, and so on. a lot of these details would show up in a well-done theory of change.

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not only do people planning an evaluation ask these types of questions, they also fill a useful role as outsiders, clarifying language and ideas that insiders may take for granted (which raises interesting questions about the promises and pitfalls of internal evaluators, even well trained, especially those taking on a learning as well as an accountability function).

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it’s just that this is link and role to planning not a new discovery. i’ll give the example of the precede-proceed model, because i am familiar with it, but there are assuredly lots of models linking planning and evaluation in useful ways. i admittedly like some of the older illustrations of the precede-proceed model but respect that larry green has updated his figures and that i should move on (but if you’re curious, you can see the old ones if you search for images ‘green precede proceed’).

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precede-proceed starts as too few programs and evaluations do: with a need assessment, based on objective indicators (wealth, disease, etc) as well as subjective indicators and intereststhis helps to form both a statement of the problem as well as setting targets for the evaluation to assess. this is an excellent time for those interested in participatory methods to employ them (rather than just employing the term ‘participatory’ whenever it makes you feel good) because this (and for program design itself) is when it really counts: getting the focus right.

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from here, a series of diagnostics can be carried out to look for the factors (facilitating and blocking) that perpetuate the current, unsatisfactory state of the world but also allow for positive deviance. this can be a process of asking why 5 times or other tools to look for the points on which a program or policy might intervene.

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this can then be followed by a process of assess the landscape of extant programs and policies and designing a new one, taking cues from product design, including the use of personae.

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the evaluation may be broader than tracing these points backwards — the elements of the program or policy, the points of intervention, the different types of need identified — but this is effectively the building blocks for a well-aligned monitoring and evaluation strategy.

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two points before moving on from the basic point that merging planning, design, and evaluation is charted territory:

  1. all of this suggests that people wanting to do good evaluation need to be better trained in the kinds of facilitating, mediating, needs assessing, and creative tasks implicated above.
  2. recognizing that design, implementation, & evaluation can be all part of the same processes is not somehow the same as saying that it is magically/conveniently unimportant to report on implementation details in an evaluation. if anyone outside the core implementation team of a project (a government agency, say, or an NGO) assists in planning, training, facilitating, framing, or any component of implementation, this needs to be reported for the sake of transparency, proper interpretation, and potential reproducibility.

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questions about independence

one of the major points echoed in the #evalcon session that i covered in my last post is that independence and unbiasedness of evaluations are hugely important in enhancing evaluative effort’s credibility among policy makers. a key challenge for anyone involved in the shifts considered in the first bit of this blog — evaluative folks thinking about getting involved early on in program design — is going to be how to instill and project integrity and trustworthiness of evaluation while letting go a bit on strict independence, in the sense of remaining arms’ length from the evaluation subject. to the extent that decision-makers and other stakeholders are a key audience, evaluators will be well-served by taking the time to understand what they see as credible and convincing evidence.

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thoughts from #evalcon on evidence uptake, capacity building

i attended a great panel today, hosted by the think take initiative and idrc and featuring representatives from three of tti’s cohort of think tanks. this is part of the broader global evaluation week (#evalcon) happening in kathmandu and focused on building bridges: use of evaluation for decision making and policy influence. the notes on evidence-uptake largely come from the session while the notes on capacity building are my own musings inspired by the event.

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one point early-on was to contrast evidence-informed decision-making with opinion-informed decision-making. i’ve usually heard the contrast painted as faith-based decision-making and think the opinion framing was useful. it also comes in handy for one of the key takeaways from the session, which is that maybe the point (and feasible goal) isn’t to do away with opinion-based decision-making but rather to make sure that opinions are increasingly shaped by rigorous evaluative evidence. or to be more bayesian about it, we want decision-makers to continuously update their priors about different issues, drawing on evidence.

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this leads to a second point. in focusing on policy influence, we may become too focused on influencing very specific decision-makers for very specific decisions. this may lead us to lose sight of the broader goal of (re-)shaping the opinions of a wide variety of stakeholders and decision-makers, even if not linked to the immediate policy or program under evaluation. so, again, the frame of shaping opinions and aiming for decision-maker/power-center rather than policy-specific influence may lead to altered approaches, goals, and benchmarks.

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a third point that echoed throughout the panel is that policy influence takes time. new ideas need time to sink in and percolate before opinions are re-shaped. secretary suman prasad sharma of nepal noted that from a decision-maker point of view, evaluations are better and more digestible when they aim to build bit by bit. participants invoked a building blocks metaphor several times and contrasted it with “big bang” results. a related and familiar point about the time and timing required for evaluation to change opinions and shape decisions is that planning for the next phase of the program cycle generally begins midway through current programming. if evaluation is to inform this next stage of planning, it requires the communication of interim results — or a more thoughtful shift of the program planning cycle relative to monitoring and evaluation funding cycles in general.

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a general point that came up repeatedly was what constitutes a good versus a bad evaluation. this leads to a key capacity-building point: we need more “capacity-building” to help decision-makers recognize credible, rigorous evidence and to mediate between conflicting findings. way too often, in my view, capacity-building ends up being about how particular methods are carried out, rather than on the central task of identifying credible methodologies and weighting the findings accordingly (or on broader principles of causal inference). that is, capacity-building among decision-makers needs to (a) understand how they currently assess credibility (on a radical premise that capacity-building exercises might generate capacity on both sides) and (b) help them become better consumers, not producers, of evidence.

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a point that surfaced continuously about how decision-makers assess evidence was about objectivity and neutrality. ‘bad evaluations’ are biased and opinionated; ‘good evaluations’ are objective. there is probably a much larger conversation to be had about parsing objectivity from independence and engagement as well as further assessment of how decision-makers assess neutrality and how evaluators might establish and signal their objectivity. as a musing: a particular method doesn’t guarantee neutrality, which can also be violated in shaping the questions, selecting the site and sample, and so on.

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other characteristics of ‘good evaluation’ that came out included those that don’t confuse being critical with only being negative. findings about what is working are also appreciated. ‘bad evaluation’ assigns blame and accountability to particular stakeholders without looking through a nuanced view of the context and events (internal and external) during the evaluation. ‘good evaluation’ involves setting eval objectives up front. ‘good evaluation’ also places the findings in the context of other evidence on the same topic; this literature/evidence review work, especially when it does not focus on a single methodology or discipline (and, yes, i am particularly alluding to RCT authors that tend to only cite other RCTs, at the expense of sectoral evidence and simply other methodologies), is very helpful to a decision-making audience, as is helping to make sense of conflicting findings.

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a final set of issues related to timing and transaction costs. a clear refrain throughout the panel is the importance of the timing of sharing the findings. this means paying attention to the budget-making cycle and sharing results at just the right moment. it means seeing windows of receptivity to evidence on particular topics, reframing the evidence accordingly, and sharing it with decision-makers and the media. it probably means learning a lot more from effective lobbyists. staying in tune with policy and media cycles in a given evaluation context is hugely time consuming. a point was made and is well-taken that the transaction costs of this kind of staying-in-tune for policy influence is quite high for researchers. perhaps goals for influence by the immediate researchers and evaluators should be more modest, at least when shaping a specific decision was not the explicit purpose of the evaluation.

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one is to communicate the findings clearly to and to do necessary capacity-building with naturally sympathetic decision-makers (say, parliamentarians or bureaucrats with an expressed interest in x issue) to become champions to keep the discussion going within decision-making bodies. to reiterate, my view is that a priority for capacity-building efforts should focus on helping decision-makers become evidence champions and good communicators of specific evaluation and research findings. this is an indirect road to influence but an important one, leveraging the credibility of decision-makers with one another. two, also indirect, is to communicate the findings clearly to and to do necessary capacity-building with the types of (advocacy? think tank?) organizations whose job is to focus on the timing of budget meetings and shifting political priorities and local events to which the evidence can be brought to bear.

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the happy closing point was that a little bit of passion in evaluation, even while trying to remain neutral and objective, does not hurt.

Aside

what i lost / terror

here’s a post that i’ve been half-meaning to write for awhile. for some time, i thought i had said all i needed to say in writing some words for her memorial.

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if the enormity of our – my – loss truly ever hits me, it will be through the small shared moments that can no longer be accumulated, even though skype tells me elif is only offline for now and gmail suggests that I may have meant to include her on my emails. with every absurd statement or mannerism over which we can’t exchange glances and snarky giggles or looks of outright disgust; with every annoyance or potentiality that can no longer be re-enacted and analysed over tea or wine; for every internet chat that no longer comes through filled with “hey lady”s “:-)”s and “;-)”s and exclamation marks at precisely the needed moment and in precisely the needed amount; and with every glass of wine i order at grafton’s knowing that she won’t be pedaling up soon in 4-inch heels to join me. maybe in this succession of elif-shaped voids I will begin to grasp what has stolen from me and from the world — through intolerance, the antithesis of all that elif believed.

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she was fearless in her approach to life, fiercely loyal in her friendships, focused in her work and infectious when she laughed. she *is* a fiercely loyal friend, appreciative and incisively honest, a yogi with a sharp tongue but a sharper wit, short-tempered but with a heart big enough to always make it OK, a perfectionist wrapped up in layers of clashing-but-considered clothes and scarves and flowers and hats. she is one of the finest partners-in-crime anyone could ask for.

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it’s been two years. but from time to time i still find myself etching a sentence or two in my mind. two 21st septembers have passed since the westgate mall shooting and i only managed to take a few sentences from my head and put them in a draft blog. i spilled little red wine out in remembrance on the appropriate dates and at a recent wedding that i know would have pleased her. a few weeks ago an (academic) article made me cry, resulting in some of the writing below.

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but i didn’t press ‘publish’ until watching the horrors of beirut and paris unfold across social media while sitting alone in a hotel in abuja, too connected and too separated and possibly with one too many heinekens. more dates. 9-11 and and 9-21 and 12/11 and 13/11 and 26/11. too many dates. ‘a calendar’ as the noun of accumulation of ‘terror.

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which i guess is when it hit me. it isn’t about the dates or the symbols or even really the cities. it’s about what is lost every day, for all of us, because of acts of terror. i don’t walk into a mall anywhere in the world without thinking about elif and wanting to walk out immediately. every time i hear someone use one of the words or phrases elif and i deemed as terrible, like “leaf peeping” (which people in new england insist on saying when they are going on a perfectly good outing to admire the autumn foliage) and “nibble” and “sequelae” (which particularly alarmed elif and she sketched once as a fearsome and carnivorous caterpillar-being) i want to write her immediately. i cannotfor the very specific reason of someone else’s hate and retribution. or statement.

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wikipedia tells me there is no agreed upon definition of terrorism but that pre-french revolution usages relate to a spreading mind-set of terror or dread, before questions about being state-sponsored or not cluttered up contemporary efforts at pinning down the idea. i’m actually not sure whether a visceral, sensory definition lies in the subtle sense of dread and suspicion of people that results from such acts or the small dead space in your brain, like an amputation, that still tries to light up when you think of someone you can no longer write. a hyper-sensitivity and a numbness.

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the best i can do now, or ever, is to remind the world what has been taken from them.

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elif and i bonded over the sort of humor that does not amuse everyone and downright offends some people. our first day of class together, in foundations of global health, the professor announced that some percentage of the world’s children would not enjoy their 5th birthdays. this is a euphemistic way of describing inequitable and horrifying under-5 mortality rates around the world, mostly from infectious disease, unhygienic surroundings, and poorly attended births. elif and i would not have been in a school of public health if we thought the underlying subject matter humorous. but the phrasing still tickled us. the birthdays wouldn’t be enjoyed because of insufficiently grand party hats? not enough party guests? somehow the subject of the joke became timmy and timmy and his failed birthday party were a recurring touchstone that got us through the two years till qualifying exams and three more years of school after that. and, hell, through elif (and ross) being on the verge of having their own child, traveling to nairobi from dar for just that purpose

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and so it was a few weeks ago, on a random day, that i found myself sobbing when reading lant pritchett’s blog on the end of kinky development, in which he declares that “no one has ever held an ‘i am over $1.25 a day’ party.” which seems liked just the sort of party i would want to plan for timmy with elif.

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which, again, i guess, is the point, if there is one, which i am never sure there is. my grief isn’t eiffel-tower shaped or cedar-tree shaped or red or white or green or blue. it’s pink and teal and elif-shaped. it doesn’t come on a particular date. it comes any time of the day or night when i want to write “elif, you won’t believe…” and can only think ‘fuck you’ to people i have never met.

teaching qualitative analysis: an intro

teaching qualitative analysis is not easy for several reasons. first, an awful lot of material on doing qualitative research focuses on data collection. relatedly, then, a lot of academic papers that draw on qualitative data and analytic methods focus on data collection and organization. too often the use of an analytic software stands in for an explanation of how analysis was done.

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second, lecturing on qualitative analysis is much like a powerpoint lecture on riding a bicycle. it sounds very easy (right foot down, then left foot down). it only gets hard when you try to do it.

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nevertheless, a lecture must begin somewhere. i hope my notes, below, may prove useful to someone else.

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despite my impulse to start with lincoln and guba’s paper, since this wasn’t an audience that spends all the their time reading academic papers or thinking about theory, i started with an example published qualitative piece. i found one that focused on a similar data source and level (interviews with high-level stakeholders as opposed to, say, a focus groups in a village or historical document review) as well as stated analytic approach (in this case, this paper by smit et al. was a good match).

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the intuition was that — even though this was not an audience entirely used to reading research outputs — it would be helpful to get a handle on the type of research product toward which we wanted to build before getting lost in the nitty gritty of analysis. with a slightly different audience, i probably would have made the lincoln & guba piece mandatory to provide a touchstone for considering and critiquing the paper and then for storyboarding our own paper.

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after reviewing a few key terms central to doing qualitative work (sources of qualitative data (talk, text, observations, images), positionality, inductive reasoning, deductive reasoning, codes and coding), we spent much of the first day discussing and critiquing the paper

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first, individually and then in pairs, and then finally as a big group, we explored these questions:

  • what are the goals set out by the researchers for this project and paper
  • why did a qualitative approach make sense to answer these questions?
  • what are the key conclusions the researchers draw from their analysis?
  • what types of data do the researchers use to support their conclusions?
  • what types of analyses do the researchers use to support their conclusions?
  • what is convincing about the link between the researchers’ results and their conclusions? could anything have been done to make this more convincing?
  • do the researchers achieve the goals they set out for themselves? why or why not? what could have been done differently?

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then, as a larger group, we explored these additional questions (which are mostly notes to myself of topics to cover rather than and handout distributed to to participants; the first set of questions i did distribute):

  • methods: data collection, organization, analysis
    • who were the data collectors? can we tell from the paper? how?
    • what was the positionality of the interviewers vis-à-vis the informants? what difference does this make?
    • what data collection strategy was used?
    • why do key informant interviews make sense as a data source given the research questions and goals?
    • were any other types of data used? how?
    • how were key informants chosen?
      • how many interviews were completed?
      • what does purposive sampling mean? snowball sampling?
      • how do the authors signal that the sample is representative of the relevant interests (i.e., what is thematic saturation or redundancy? what does this imply about the relationship between data collection, entry, and analysis in qualitative research?)? is this convincing? could it have been more convincing and if so, how?
    • how do the authors display their sample? is it helpful? what characteristics do they highlight and why? could it have been done better or differently?
    • what is a semi-structured interview guide? how does it differ from a completely structured or unstructured questionnaire or guide?
      • what types of questions did the researchers ask? how do we know? what else might we have liked to have known?
    • is there anything else we would have liked to have known about how the data were collected?
    • how were the data converted into transcripts? do the authors provide all the information we want on this?
    • what does it mean in this case that an inductive approach was used?
      • how did the researchers set about their induction? is this convincing?
        • what does it mean that key themes “emerged”?
      • what would have been different if the researchers had used a deductive approach? how would the analysis have changed? what would have been the trade-offs?
      • what did the authors actually do in analysis? do they provide us enough information to know?

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  • results
    • how do the authors reassure us that the information from different stakeholders is used and presented in a balanced way? could this have been done differently or better? if so, how?
    • figure 1 is the main display of the (descriptive) results.
      • did you look at it carefully when reading the paper or did you skip over it?
      • where did the figure come from? what do the bullet points in each box represent?
      • is this figure meant to be descriptive or analytic?
      • what is helpful about this display? what could have been done differently?
    • how are the results in this paper organized?
      • how does the presentation of results relate to the research questions?
      • how are quotations used to communicate the results? is this effective? convincing?
      • how were the quotes selected? are they meant to be representative or exceptional? how do you know?
      • were conflicting or diverging viewpoints represented? how do you know?
      • do you feel the researchers have drawn reasonable inferences from the data?
      • do the conclusions follow from the data?
      • do you feel that the researchers already had the conclusions in mind before they analyzed the data? does this affect the convincing-ness of the analysis?

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  • interpretations
    • what did the researchers do to make the present paper credible?
    • what did the researchers do to make the present paper balanced?
    • what did the researchers do to enhancing transparency?
    • is the paper ultimately convincing? why/not?