Where know-how and action were missing

Guest blog written by Molebogeng Amanda (Tshoma) Mazibuko

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Leading Economic Growth Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. 65 Participants successfully completed this 10-week online course in May 2021. These are their learning journey stories.

For five years, I have had a vision to help a specific group of people; a relegated and prejudiced gender with immense potential to create positive economic impact.

I have written strategic documents and struggled to match them to executable plans; either because of authority or know-how related challenges. As noble my intention was to help, I just did not have the know-how and had no idea of how to accumulate it.

My ‘laundry-list’ approach led to an aggregation of factors to a point where the real root cause was hidden under a symptom.  

During my journey on PDIA through the Leading Economic Growth with Harvard Kennedy School I identified multiple flaws which implied that my level of know how was a limitation to advance the project’s intention. PDIA made me question formerly held principles in understanding and driving change. I managed to identify key functional asymmetries and learnt to measure progress via functionality-legitimacy practical framework. 

Continue reading Where know-how and action were missing

Helping Current and Future Adolescent Girls Requires Bailing Out the Boat but Also Fixing the Hole

Guest blog written by Michelle Kaffenberger, Kirsty Newman, Marla Spivack

Guaranteeing quality education for every girl requires a two-pronged approach: bailing out the boat and fixing the hole in its hull. We need to invest in today’s primary school girlswho are future adolescentsto ensure that they gain the foundational skills they need to start and stay on a strong learning trajectory. Programmes aimed at girls who have already reached adolescence need to focus on closing learning gaps, not just inducing greater attendance, so that girls reap the full benefit of additional time spent in school.

The consequences of low learning

You only have to look at modern-day heroines Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg to appreciate the power that adolescent girls have to change the world. Their potential is limitless. But tragically, too many adolescent girls struggle to reach their full potential, often because education systems are failing them. Many stakeholders blame early marriage, pregnancy, or entry into the workforce for pulling girls out of school, and propose solutions to tackle these.  But these pulls are often symptoms of dropout. The deeper cause is often low learning pushing girls out.

new RISE Insight Note discusses how insights from learning trajectories (analysis of how much children learn over time) can inform approaches to supporting today’s and tomorrow’s girls. For many children in developing countries, learning trajectories are too shallow and flatten out far too quickly. The illustration in Figure 1 shows how damaging flat learning trajectories can be. The purple line shows a learning trajectory that makes enough progress to reach threshold goals, like basic arithmetic, early and sets girls up to reach aspirational goals (like advanced calculus) by the end of school. But the orange learning trajectory is too flat, meaning that children learn little and fall behind the level of instruction. Even if a girl whose learning follows this trajectory persists all the way to the end of school, she can’t reach even the threshold goal at this slow learning pace.

Continue reading Helping Current and Future Adolescent Girls Requires Bailing Out the Boat but Also Fixing the Hole

To Increase Girls’ Schooling, Improve Girls’ Learning

written by Michelle Kaffenberger, Danielle Sobol, Deborah Spindelman, Marla Spivack

A new paper shows that girls who are learning are more likely to stay in school. Improving learning could be key to achieving both schooling and learning goals.

The G7 recently agreed to two new education objectives: ensure that 40 million more girls attend school and that 20 million more girls are able to read by 2026. A new RISE working paper suggests good news: that progress on the girls’ learning goal may actually be one of the keys to delivering on the girls’ schooling goal. 

The paper draws on longitudinal quantitative and qualitative data from the Young Lives Surveys in Ethiopia, India, Peru, and Vietnam to understand why children drop out of school. The quantitative data reveals a strong link between low learning and later dropout. The qualitative findings reveal that low learning often underlies other, more commonly cited reasons girls drop out such as marriage or work. Girls report seeking ways to provide for their futures, and when it becomes clear that they are learning too little for school to provide future security, they seek other means such as a husband or a job.

Continue reading To Increase Girls’ Schooling, Improve Girls’ Learning

Improving Nutritional Outcomes in India

Guest blog written by Saachi Bhalla

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Implementing Public Policy Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Participants successfully completed this 6-month online learning course in December 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

When I applied for the IPP online course, I was hoping to help strengthen my understanding and capacity for policy analysis and to spend dedicated time in identifying ways of making progress on complex public policy issues. I was particularly interested in engaging with ways of identify formal and informal power relationships and processes which can lead to strong policy implementation and action by policy makers.

In particular, I was keen to explore how to build on the capability-accountability of state and non-state actors and how to shape processes for convergent action across ministries to impact nutrition outcomes in India. 

The course’s approach of teaching theory combined with the space to work on applying theory to one’s own implementation challenge is what was particularly attractive. 

My biggest learnings from the course include:

  • Understand the problem: define, redefine, and unpack the problem. The approach of constructing and deconstructing the problem, drilling down till you are really identifying the root causes and what are the smaller pieces that constitute the root causes. Asking the five whys and drawing up the fishbone has been such an enriching process. I find that I am using the fishbone diagram as an approach in much of my work now, beyond the policy challenge I have been working on through this course. 
  • Understand the change space: related to the learnings from constructing and deconstructing the problem and drawing up a fishbone, I find that understanding the change space is critical. The 3 As – acceptance, authority, and ability – helped in understanding what is critical to be able to act on policy challenges, but even more importantly, it helped me in identifying where to start. This has possibly been the most important learning for me from the course. I’ve learnt from colleagues at work about the concept of relentless incrementalism but have always questioned about where to start. This framework and analysis of change space has helped me with a tool to be able to answer the question. 
  • Practice leadership: this course has provided some rich resources and the reflective questions within modules have helped me think about myself as a leader, reflect on what constitutes leadership, and how to practice those skills. The multi agent leadership model made me think about how the same person could play the role of a leader and a follower simultaneously. Being cognizant of what role you play where, who are the others involved, and what role could they be playing, can help in building allies and recognizing when more efforts may be required to bring critical stakeholders along.
  • Learning as critical to success: the idea of short feedback loops and actively learning what, how, and why has been at the back of my mind for long. This course has helped me in articulating it better and defining a process through which this can be practiced. 
  • Importance of a collective voice: aligning on vision, engaging with legitimate sources of knowledge, understanding what we are projecting are important for success. Having a collective voice helps in building traction for a narrative and support for the aspects of the policy challenge we are trying to address. 

My implementation challenge relates to improving nutrition outcomes in India. My problem definition was that Malnutrition remains a rampant problem in India despite evidence- based policies to address it. The major causes to this relate to poor multi sectoral governance, program design not allowing attention to be paid to address the causes of malnutrition, public finance management systems which limit effective spending on nutrition, and information asymmetry and social/gender norms impacting both govt leadership as well as community behaviours. 

Continue reading Improving Nutritional Outcomes in India

To Improve Women’s Lives, Start by Improving Girls’ Education

written by Marla Spivack

By ensuring that all girls are receiving inclusive, effective instruction in well-functioning education systems, we can grow closer to achieving SDG 4’s promise of universal literacy and numeracy and lifelong learning.

Today is International Women’s Day. Among the unprecedented challenges that COVID-19 presents, there are manymanymany issues in women’s lives that deserve urgent attention.  Amid all of those pressing challenges, we should not lose sight of how COVID-19 is affecting today’s girls, who will become tomorrow’s women. 

COVID-19 and girls’ schooling

COIVD-19 has closed schools. According to UNESCO, nearly 1.5 billion children in more than 180 countries were affected by the closures. For girls with access to the internet, this means time spent in front of screens, where too little is known about how the abrupt transition to online learning will affect their progress. But for girls in disadvantaged countries and communities who lack access to the technology that enables remote schooling, school closures have severely curtailed or even completely paused their learning. 

Fortunately, schools are starting to open up again. This is welcome news. But school systems will have to act quickly to help girls catch up from this lost year of learning. Simulations and empirical estimates suggest that when children miss out on time in school, they can continue to fall farther behind after they return unless sufficient attention is paid to ensuring that classroom instruction matches children’s actual, post-lockdown learning levels rather than simply defaulting where the curriculum would have been under business as usual. Education systems need to focus on foundations when schools reopen, assess where students are when schools reopen, provide adequate time for remediation, and streamline curricula so that children don’t fall farther behind when they are back in the classroom

Those are the immediate steps systems can take to help children catch up from this crisis, but the reopening of schools is also the right time to ask: what kind of school systems are girls returning to? 

Even before the pandemic, far too many girls had their future potential stymied by ineffective education systems

The World Bank’s Learning Poverty measure paints a stark picture of the poor quality of the education most children in low- and middle-income countries receive. 53 percent of boys and girls in low- and middle- income countries reach the age of 10 without mastering basic reading skills. In the world’s poorest countries, the figures are even more grim, as Figure 1 shows.

Continue reading To Improve Women’s Lives, Start by Improving Girls’ Education

PDIA is a Journey about How to Engage

Guest blog written by Eleanor Sarpong 

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Implementing Public Policy Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Participants successfully completed this 7-month blended learning course in December 2019. These are their learning journey stories.

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My first reaction when I was introduced to the course on IPP via email was hesitation- “Really how different will this course be to others on implementing public policy?” I asked. I was particularly anxious to know how to navigate the political minefield that often hamper public policy implementation. So, I applied for this course with high hopes to understand what new ideas I could adopt to help me with delayed policy implementation in my role as an external advisor to governments on ICT policies and strategies.

What I received in this course however, was eye opening and surpassed my expectations.  From the outset of the course, I was challenged to think differently with the concept of the Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) approach. The cherry on the cake was the wonderful classmates I met, all of whom are working on some remarkable but complex policies and projects such as establishing a Ministry of Peace in a country emerging from years of near autocracy and recent civil unrest, to fighting land grabbers in the Amazon, or getting politicians to understand the impact of Brexit on the financial industry in the UK to implementing an investor drive for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in a Middle Eastern country.

I joined this course with preconceived notions about how public policy implementation should be – following the plan and control approach commonly used in projects. What I left with however, was a new way of looking at implementing policy through a problem driven iterative approach that was agile in its format.  The entire PDIA process has been really insightful from looking at problem identification differently, and unearthing the underlying causes of a problem which are often multi faceted. In reality I’ve learnt that the policy implementation process is not a logical process. One can go back and forth on each stage but the learning or iterations is what makes this approach more engaging. An interesting part of this programme was applying the knowledge of the 5whys to the develop a fishbone diagram which gave me visual representation of the underlying causes of my chosen policy problem of poor and inadequate broadband in many parts Ghana. The next stage was searching for entry points based on the Triple A framework – Ability Authority and Acceptance. I’ve learnt to navigate the fine balance needed between legitimacy (measure of how the public perceives or accepts the policy and often judges the policy’s effectiveness) and functionality (the measure of the “what and why” a policy intervention is being pursued and to what extent that policy intervention resolves the problem or objective identified) and I know that it is not a linear process but zigzag in reality. Another powerful takeaway I took from this course is knowing the power of negotiation and having humility to confront difficult decisions and biases. I still remember vividly the day we were taught how to confront the problem of discrimination and inherent biases that rear up in some policies and how to tackle these through tactful negotiation and smart concessions.

This programme challenged me to redefine my policy problem and to focus. I discovered something new about my policy challenge during the problem construction and deconstruction phase of the process when two representatives from the regulator (who were directly linked to my challenge) pinpointed trust issues as an underlying cause that needed to be addressed. Subsequently I have been working with them to tackle this problem. Our review of the Everest Case Study amplified team roles and responsibilities in a way I had not considered. It forced me to evaluate the team I had assembled for my policy challenge and reassign roles. The process has however not been easy. One of the hardest part of my policy implementation journey has been managing the stakeholder relationships and ensuring continuous motivation for those who are part of this process, to stay on course. One complaint I continue to receive is that this process is too involving and time consuming.  While I’m self-motivated, getting my internal team to continue to support this new way of approaching policy was a challenge. When my internal team started losing momentum as the process moved slowly I knew I had to step in. The modules on motivation, follow up group conversations and Anisha’s blog on motivation helped me realise this turn of events was nothing new. I’ve tried to build a safe space by encouraging individual members of my team to candidly share what is working in our process and what is not. One common thread was the lack of time to pursue the iterative learning with our external stakeholders because we worked remotely. E.g. attempting to have calls with key stakeholders in poor bandwidth areas was frustrating. After we listed all the problems we collectively tried to find solutions or new ideas to address this challenge. Continue reading PDIA is a Journey about How to Engage

Girls and Poverty in Kenya

Guest blog written by Jaynnie K Mulle, Meital Tzobotaro, Rosemary Okello-Orale, Stephen Brager, Warren Harrity.

This is a team of five development practitioners who work for USAID and Strathmore University in Kenya. They successfully completed the 15-week Practice of PDIA online course that ended in May 2019. This is their story.

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The course provided a number of valuable tools, principles, and practices that are already being put to use.  Additionally, a great takeaway is our team that was formed for this course, I am not sure how if it all we would have come together to work on something in a way that this course brought us together,  but we are glad for this opportunity to create this team.  Specific key takeaways include the emphasis on defining and deconstructing a problem rather that “applying solutions”;  assessing the AAA’s and including the development of the authorization space as part of the activity; crawling the design; and appreciating that this practice is hard but rewarding.   In many regards this course was a gift that enriched our thinking, refueled our enthusiasm, and helped us to look at our problem in a new and exciting way.  Allow us to offer you a gift in return, if you’ve not done so already, read about one of the earliest PDIA practitioners in the “Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.”

Other take-aways from the course include:

  1. Instead of adopting the solution that other people have to solve a problem, the course helped us to learn how to search for solutions to our problem,
  2. The 1804 metaphor of taking small steps to solve complex problems,
  3. The use of the fishbone to identify the cause and effects in problems and how they are interconnected. Most importantly how fishbone allows for prioritizing relevant cause so that the underlying root cause is addressed first,
  4. The importance of using iteration, and,
  5. How people are at the center of all PDIA elements

Continue reading Girls and Poverty in Kenya

Enhancing Women’s participation in Nigeria

Guest blog written by Adetunde Ademefun, Lois Chinedu, and Suleiman Oluwatosin

This team is made up of of experienced Programme, Research and Communication Staff and Assistants who work at the Nigerian Women Trust Fund (NWTF). They successfully completed the 15-week Practice of PDIA online course that ended in December 2018. This is their story.

Amazingly, when we were asked to be part of the PDIA course and were told the members of our team, concerns were raised about tight schedules, especially how in Nigeria, we are preparing for the elections and it would not be seemingly possible to dedicate time for meetings to ensure a coordinated flow of information. But, we did it!

For a fact, this course has appeared to be both a fascinating and an emerging field. The PDIA course was very well done and we enjoyed it. The instructors were really good and instrumental to our success as a team. The first part of this course that really brought us closer as a Team was Module Five where, we learnt about “People as the Source of Capability”. This particular module helped reinforce the importance of team work in an organisation

Two very vital modules that got our critical thinking caps on, and as such revealed to us that we have not completely explored all the alternatives to solving one of the Key Goals of our Organisation (Enhancing Women’s Participation in Governance) were Deconstructing Problems  and Identifying the Change space. It was while studying this module that we identified entry points to solving problems such as advocating through lobbying, creating voter sensitization programmes through policy makers, etc. Continue reading Enhancing Women’s participation in Nigeria

The New Global Goals Spell the End of Kinky Development

written by Lant Pritchett

The UN’s post-2015 “Sustainable Development Goals” (or “Global Goals”) debuted to decidedly mixed reviews. Phyllis Pomerantz points out that with 169 targets “if everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.” Bill Easterly refers to the SDG as “senseless, dreamy, garbled,” Lord Mark Malloch Brown’s called them “higgedly-piggedly,” Charles Kenny describes them as “a mess.” Duncan Green was in early (2012) with “bah humbug.” Homi Kharas, in contrast, expects “great things.”

I think the SDGs are both worthless and yet worth it. My perhaps perverse view is that the SDGs are terrific because they will have no impact. The choices for a post-2015 UN development agenda were: (a) a “more of the same” extension of the MDG approach, (b) nothing, and (c) something like the SDGs. While one can debate whether the SDGs are slightly better than nothing or slightly worse than nothing, my argument is that even if the SDGs are worth nothing they are still far better than the MDGs.

The feature that many like about the MDGs, their focus, made them worse than nothing because they were focused on an agenda that was too narrow, too biased, and too kinky to be a global development agenda and this focus distorted development action and assistance.

MDGs too narrow and biased

Table 1 comparing the MDGs with priorities named by developing-country citizens shows the MDG domains were too narrow (excluding entire high-priority domains like energy and transport infrastructure, social protection, or good governance), had too narrow agenda even within those domains it named (schooling without learning, just a few diseases), and were biased toward rich-country and global hyper-elite concerns.

Table 1: The MDGs were narrow and biased compared to the expressed priorities of developing countries in the UN’s own “My World” survey

In connection with the preparation of the SDGs, the UN ran “My World,” a global survey that allowed people online (and with some other outreach to cell and paper surveys) to choose 6 of 16 possible issues as “most important for you and your family.” The process was obviously not representative and was potentially biased in a number of ways, but, unlike the MDGs, it allowed over 5.7 million people from low- and medium-HDI (human development indicator) countries to participate. Moreover, as part of a UN process, one would think the biases would be pro-MDG.

A comparison of these survey rankings (again, such as they are) against the official MDG goals, targets, and indicators shows just how narrow and biased the MDGs were. “Good education” is the most commonly named priority. While there is an MDG for education it lists only primary school completion, doesn’t happen to mention that education be “good,” or include anything about secondary or tertiary education.

“Better healthcare” is number 1, and health gets three goals but they are focused on specific ages, diseases, and conditions and never mention either “healthcare” or “better” for most disease conditions (see below).

The survey lists neither “economic growth” or “poverty” as possible priorities but “better job opportunities” is the number 3 named priority but, strangely, is subsumed in the MDGs as a target under the goal “Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger” without a numeric goal or target.

An honest and responsive government is the number 4 priority and merits only a vague mention in the MDGs.

Priorities 5, 6, 7, and 9 (among low-HDI country respondents) are infrastructure related — energy, transport, clean water and sanitation, and phone and internet access. Energy and transport are completely absent from the MDGs and water and sanitation are subsumed under “environmental sustainability” (as opposed to being important in their own right) and, more strangely still, phone and internet without a target bur have indicators under “global partnership for development.” As Leo (2013) shows representative survey results suggest that infrastructure is a large priority in Africa and Latin America.

The only target for goal 3 of promoting gender equality and empowering women was equalizing enrollments in primary and secondary school — nothing about sexual violence and domestic violence, nothing about property rights, nothing about discrimination.

The MDGs were too narrow a definition of development, with entire domains important to developing countries’ citizens like energy, transport, good governance and political freedoms, crime and violence, and social protection left out entirely. Even within the domains with an MDG like education, health and gender these were interpreted far too narrowly.

Too kinky

Kinky development is “defining development down” by setting a low bar for a goal and then claiming that reaching this arbitrary low bar is a priority. I call this “kinky” because a targeted project/program/intervention/policy that pushes everybody just up to a low bar level would produce a “kink” in the distribution of well-being at low bar level.

Table 2 shows the MDG targets were such low bar goals they were near being accomplished in the largest developing countries by the time MDGs started.

Table 2: The status of the MDGs before they started in most of the 20 largest developing countries—the targets were already mostly met because they were narrow and kinky

The top 20 most populous developing countries in Table 1 have 4.6 billion of the roughly 6 billion people in the developing world. Table 1 shows where these countries were on the MDGs roughly when (or just after) they started (as best data allows).

This table illustrates that the problem with the MDGs is not that they are not worthy goals but that the goals were too low to constitute a development agenda as they affected too few people.

Take access to an improved water source where the goal was to halve the proportion of people without access to safe water. In Pakistan in 2000, 88 percent of people were already using an improved source in 2000. This means improvements in water that benefitted only 6 percent of the people would be sufficient to meet the target. But only 28 percent of people in Pakistan in 2000 used water piped into their premise, which is a goal for nearly everyone and widely considered part of development but not included in the low-bar MDG. Too low bar.

Take gender. The target is just about equality of enrollment in primary and secondary school. In 10 of 17 countries with data this was already over 90 percent in 2000. But in Colombia where girls are more likely to be in primary and secondary school than boys, the DHS survey reports 44 percent of ever-married women have suffered from domestic violence by their spouse partner. The goal for “promoting gender equality and empowering women” is achieved without any mention of domestic violence? Too low bar.

Take education. All countries have many goals for education but the MDG had the narrow and low-bar goal just completing primary schooling — nothing about learning in primary school (or elsewhere), nothing about secondary, nothing about school to work transitions and training, nothing about higher education, nothing about research and knowledge creation — just completing primary school. As table 2 shows only 4 of these 20 countries had gross primary enrollment rates below 95 percent before the MDG started. Too low bar.

Take health. Besides the goal on infant mortality, the MDGs named HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria (Goal 6) and maternal health (Goal 5). These are obviously important and priority areas. But how narrow are these goals as a portion of (non-child) health? For this we only have data for 2005 but these diseases were less than 10 percent of all burden of disease in all but five countries and less than 5 percent in 11 countries. Three goals for health and nothing about access to health care? Too low bar.

What is the problem with development goals that are narrow, biased and kinky?

First, there is no line. A fundamental principle of Marshall’s Principles was that “nature doesn’t jump” and that is right: there is no non-linear jump in human well-being as these arbitrary low-bar thresholds are crossed. Nothing special happens to a child’s knowledge or capabilities at the end of primary school. Those more than 2 standard deviations below a norm of weight for age the WHO defines as “malnourished” but no one imagines that there is a dramatic difference between those at 2.1 and 1.9. There is no line at the poverty line — no one has ever held an “I am over $1.25 a day” party. Focusing on low-bar goals explicitly dismisses peoples’ legitimate aspirations for good education, better healthcare, higher incomes, better infrastructure as not “priority” without any rationale or justification for a cut off at a low bar.

The second problem is the MDG agenda is too narrow, biased, and kinky to be the development agenda of a democratically elected government. Democratic governments need the median voter and hence nearly all democracies have an agenda aimed at not just “the poor” but their broad middle class. This cannot be the MDGs. Take Indonesia, which made a democratic transition in 1999. The MDG on education could be part of, but not the main focus of its education agenda as primary completion was already at 95 percent. HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, and maternal mortality could be part of its health agenda — but that covered only 6.4 percent of its burden of disease. Access to improved water could be part of its infrastructure agenda, but 78 percent were already there. Equalizing enrollment could be part of a gender agenda, but rates were nearly equal already. By 2000 “dollar a day” poverty was already down to 29.4 percent (after spiking during the crisis) so that could not be their economic agenda — even though 67.1 percent were under the “two dollar a day” standard. As seen in Table 2 only for the very poorest of African countries could the MDGs broadly appeal as an agenda for the median voter.

Third, there is a fundamental contradiction between narrow, biased, kinky MDGs and the Paris Declaration that aid should be based on partner-country priorities. You cannot dictate both process and outcome: “countries should set their own priorities and these priorities should be the MDGs.” In nearly all developing countries, governments were increasingly saying to representatives of development assistance agencies: “Do you want to talk about our national agenda or the MDGs?” If one wants to maintain support for development assistance it has to have the support of the developing countries.

If a “mess” of “senseless, dreamy, garbled” “higgledy-piggledy” SDGs with “no priorities” are the price to pay to get rid of the focused but narrow, biased, and kinky MDGs and onto explicit goals, widely shared among citizens of developing countries, for economic growth (8.1) and higher poverty lines (1.2), learning in education goals (4.1), addressing systemic service delivery issues in healthcare and financing, access to energy (7.1) and expressing high-bar ideals rather than defining development down to low-bar goals then I am all for it — even if I don’t expect great things.