Policymakers must use data to finesse governance
In the first chapter of Poor Economics, Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee share their observation that “ideology drives a lot of policies, and even the most well-intentioned ideas can get bogged down by ignorance of ground-level realities and inertia at the level of the implementer.” Now almost eight years after the book’s first publication, in India, we can safely say that the idea of evidence-based policymaking is not as unheard of as it was back then.
This year’s choice for the Nobel Prize is a testament to the influential role that rigorous evidence can play in reducing poverty when it reaches the people who have the power and motivation to take decisions, make investments, and set up systems to solve local development challenges. We now have multiple examples of governments partnering with research organisations in South Asia to push beyond business as usual, and into the realm of policy backed by hard research.
As the associate director of J-PAL South Asia, an organisation founded by Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee in 2007, the mainstay of my team’s work has been to act as an enabler and facilitator for policymakers to use the insights generated by Esther, Abhijit, and other researchers doing similar work, and to initiate new, policy-relevant research through regular government engagement and partnership.
The reason why our government partners find what we have to say compelling more often than not is because what our evidence reveals is often a natural fit for the needs of the policymakers who want to see change in their block, district or state where they work. Our government partners have genuinely sought to change the status quo and displayed a sincere desire to understand what programmes work, what programmes fail on the ground, and why.
For example, in September 2019, the National Health Mission (NHM), government of Haryana formalised a partnership with J-PAL South Asia to systematically integrate the use of data and rigorous research to improve the implementation of state health and immunisation programmes. Through this partnership we also seek to support the government of Haryana’s efforts to build the capacity of health service providers and departmental staff to collect high quality, usable data through the state government’s health information systems.
Researchers using randomised evaluations in development economics continue to bring new frameworks to persistent policy problems, and test solutions that are based on the intricacies of people’s lives, their decisions, and their realities. This search for practical policy solutions focuses on how to contextualise research conducted in various parts of the world, so that they can apply to a particular state or localities systems and resources at hand. The most powerful and policy-relevant research not only answers the question of whether a specific programme impacted its target outcomes or not, but also answers how and why the programme either failed or succeeded.
During the press conference after her Nobel win, Duflo referred to her work as a “collective effort” and said that “we could not have created a movement without hundreds of researchers and staff members.” She continues to acknowledge the role that government partners have played in taking that research into account when designing policy.
At this juncture, I hope that more and more policymakers will begin to challenge the status quo and push the boundaries of governance by adopting data-driven, evidence-based approaches to decision-making to improve a range of outcomes for people, including better education, better health, better access to public services, reduced unemployment and so on.
This win is especially significant for India and will hopefully provide an additional thrust to the movement of governments demanding evidence, and embarking on a learning journey with organisations whose mission it is to improve people’s lives through the use of evidence on what works, and why.
Shagun Sabarwal is the associate director of policy and training at J-PAL South Asia
The views expressed are personal