How can we learn when we don’t understand the problem?

written by Salimah Samji

Most development practitioners think that they are working on problems. However, what they often mean by the word ‘problem’ is the ‘lack of a solution’. This leads to designing typical, business as usual interventions, without addressing the actual problem. Essentially, they sell solutions to specific problems they have identified and prioritized instead of solving real and distinct problems.

If the problem identification is flawed, then it does not matter whether you do a gold standard RCT or not, you will neither solve the problem nor learn about what works. Here’s a great example. A recent paper entitled, The permanent input hypothesis: the case of textbooks and (no) student learning in Sierra Leone found that a public program providing textbooks to primary schools had no impact on student performance because the majority of books were stored rather than distributed.

Could they not have learned that the textbooks were being locked up, cheaper and faster, through some routine monitoring or audit process (which could have led to understanding why they were locked up and then perhaps trying to find other ways to improve access to the textbooks – assuming that was their goal)? Was an RCT really necessary? More importantly, what was the problem they were trying to solve? What was their causal model or theory of change? If you provide textbooks to children then learning outcomes will improve?

Interestingly, the context section of the paper mentions that “the civil war severely impacted the country’s education system leading to large-scale devastation of school infrastructure, severe shortages of teachers and teaching materials, overcrowding in many classrooms in safer areas, displacement of teachers, frequent disruptions of schooling, psychological trauma among children, poor learning outcomes, weakened institutional capacity to manage the system, and a serious lack of information and data to plan service provision.” In addition, they also found variance between regions and in one remote council, “less than 50 percent of all schools were considered to be in good condition, with almost 20 percent falling under the category “no roof, walls are heavily damaged, needs complete rehabilitation.”

Honestly, in a complex context like this, it isn’t clear or obvious that providing textbooks would make much difference even if they were handed out to the children, especially since they are written in English. Apparently, the teachers teach in Krio in the early years and then switch to English in Grade 4 and 5. Based on the context above, that sounds more like fiction than fact.

In environments like these, real problems are complex and scary, and it is easier to ignore them than to address them. A possible way forward could be to break the problem down into smaller more manageable pieces using tools like problem trees, the ishikawa diagram and the ‘5 whys.’ Then design an intervention, try, learn, iterate and adapt.

For more watch BSC video deconstructing sticky problems and problem driven sequencing.

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