Featured Story
Data-Driven Change
By Ron Londen
Illustrations By Davide Bonazzi

Batten scholars do the hard work of conducting research where it is needed most.

Isaac Mbiti has seen it before.

When requesting data from various government agencies in developing nations for his research projects, he is often offered a basic report that merely tabulates and summarizes the patterns found in the data. But he does not want prepackaged conclusions; he wants to do his own analysis of the raw data.

“They get this very puzzled look on their faces when I ask for the entire raw data set, like, ‘What? No one has ever asked us for this.’”

Given the budget constraints faced by developing nations, the role of evidence-based policy is crucial to enabling governments to make more effective policy decisions. However, where such evidence-based policy making is needed most, useful data is often least available—constrained by suspicion or bureaucracy, or by the simple fact that no one has bothered to ask the right questions in the right way.

“Data-driven decision-making requires reliable data,” Mbiti says.

Mbiti joins the faculty of the Batten School this fall, adding his name to a cadre of researchers whose work has engaged some of the most intractable public policy challenges in the world. The efforts of four Batten faculty in particular have helped lead to lower costs and better health outcomes for the peri-urban poor in West Africa; to surprising insights about the educational system in Kenya; to the steep reduction of extreme poverty in Turkey; and, perhaps, to a way forward for people trapped in imposed cycles of poverty and hopelessness in refugee camps.


From Senegal

Using markets to improve sanitation

As with many rapidly expanding cities in the developing world, Dakar has struggled to keep its infrastructure in step with its population growth. Many poor households in or near the city are not connected to the sewage network; they have to enlist private markets to service their sewage systems. Improved sanitation services are often costly, and many households resort to unsanitary disposal because of the high fees.

The cheapest option is manual desludging, where buckets of sewage often end up dumped on nearby streets, increasing disease risk for surrounding neighbors. In contrast, mechanical desludging hauls the sewage away in tanker trucks—proper for waste disposal but twice the cost. With the expensive equipment required to enter the market, mechanical desludgers face limited competition.

“The potential health benefits of improving sanitation in developing countries are very large,” says Batten’s Molly Lipscomb, who has studied water and sanitation issues in several West African nations. She notes that children in areas with mechanical desludging can have 25 percent fewer cases of diarrhea, which can be fatal in young children.

The project began with a focus on increasing the willingness among households to pay for improved sanitation services, measuring neighbor-to-neighbor pressure on the likelihood of switching waste methods.

Together with Jean-Francois Houde (Wharton) and Laura Schechter (Wisconsin-Madison) and funded by a research grant from the Gates Foundation, Lipscomb designed a call center and a system of real-time auctions to stimulate competition among service providers—driving prices down and shifting more market power to customers. The project has yielded valuable data about how auctions can affect pricing for sanitation and how different types of service providers adapt to new market pressures that such auctions create.

“The effects of the auctions have been extraordinary,” she says, noting that the system has driven mechanical desludging prices down by about 15 percent.

The system has been scaled up for implementation across Dakar and has inspired projects in other countries as well. Ongoing projects in Senegal, Ghana and Burkina Faso explore how to best match customers with high-quality, low-cost service providers. Lipscomb and her colleagues have also started an innovative new system of mobile payments in locations where cell phones often outnumber bank accounts—allowing customers the ability to make noncash purchases without an expensive bank account while giving desludgers confidence that they will get paid for their work.

While clean water development has been a front-burner issue throughout the developing world, sanitation has received less public attention, perhaps because sanitation can be perceived as a less “sexy” topic. It is less sexy—than almost anything—yet as Lipscomb says, “it is vitally important and has been ignored for far too long.” Sanitation improvements typically require large investments to connect households to a traditional sewage network. However, Lipscomb and colleagues are showing that vast improvements in environmental quality and public welfare can be made through relatively small market interventions that empower the customer.


From Kenya

A culture of mistrust

In her sanitation projects, Molly Lipscomb worked closely with Water and Sanitation for Africa, a multinational organization with broad support from national governments across the continent. For Isaac Mbiti, however, cooperation from different levels of government was at times a little harder to find.

Mbiti was researching the outcomes of wide-ranging educational reforms in Kenya, including the decision to abolish all school fees in public primary schools. At first, media skepticism of the proposed change was widespread, with “apocalyptic newspaper stories saying the educational system was going to collapse.”

The collapse never happened; Mbiti’s research indicated that the reforms largely worked. Poor students got access to education, often for the first time. The reforms also spurred increases in private schooling among well-off families. Despite all these changes, there were minimal declines in test scores, suggesting that the program succeeded without the significant reductions in learning levels that had been widely predicted within the media.

Still, getting the vital data was a constant challenge, as is common across the developing world.

Often, researchers find a “culture of mistrust” from government officials, a fear that researchers will make the government look bad or that researchers will contradict official government statistics. As a result, taxpayer-funded data is not available to the public.

At other times, the data simply does not exist. And then, Mbiti goes to work, collecting his own survey data. This often involves implementing randomized controlled trials or, in some cases, augmenting data with additional sources. For instance, in his study that examined the free primary education program in Kenya, Mbiti had to assemble a combination of household survey data, census data, school-level information and individual test score results from the entire country in order to assess the effects of the program.

Another time, Mbiti and his collaborator designed a highly targeted study combining administrative data on test scores with surveys to find “precise answers to precise questions” about Kenya’s network of elite “national schools.” Do the national schools actually deliver better outcomes, or do their students excel because only the best students are allowed in?

As good research often is, the results were surprising.

Kenya’s prestigious, secondary-level national schools admit the best students from each region of the country. Only about 3 percent of students have test scores high enough to qualify. These prestigious schools spare few expenses, with elaborate facilities and state-of-the-art computer labs. Some even boast of airplanes and landing strips, to train students in aviation.

Mbiti’s study targeted students on both sides of the test-score admission threshold, comparing the outcomes of students who were barely admitted to those who barely missed. By narrowing the focus to closely matched students, Mbiti could evaluate the actual impact of the elite schools in test-score outcomes.

“When we rigorously analyzed this, we found that these schools basically did nothing,” Mbiti says. By the end of their secondary schooling, the students who just missed getting into national schools did just as well as the students who barely got in.

“We were very surprised. When you look at the difference in facilities between these schools and the other secondary schools, it’s massive, but it did not translate to better test scores.” This is consistent, Mbiti points out, with a number of studies showing that—in the absence of reforms in accountability and teaching methods—merely increasing school inputs does little to improve learning outcomes in developing countries.

In these research projects, which ranged over years, Mbiti and his colleagues battled media assertions that public-school reform had failed, as well as central government assumptions that elite national schools had triumphed. Sometimes it falls to policy researchers to do the hard work of skewering intuition—of telling people that the bad news isn’t that bad and the good news isn’t that good.

For such times, the right data and rigorous analysis are essential.


From Turkey

Fighting extreme poverty

While securing reliable data was a constant challenge for Isaac Mbiti, Jeanine Braithwaite emerged from a major research project with more data than she could have imagined.

Before joining the Batten School, Braithwaite worked for 20 years as an economist with the World Bank, specializing in issues related to poverty. She was part of the World Bank’s response team following Turkey’s devastating 1999 earthquake. In 2001, that country also suffered a severe economic crisis and a wave of inflation. Guided by the World Bank, Turkey’s disciplined response reigned in the money supply as well as government spending, bringing inflation under control. Those moves set up the ultimate win-win scenario: sustained economic growth.

With Turkey’s economy poised to grow, Braithwaite proposed that the country adopt a poverty strategy that had proven effective in Chile, Mexico and Brazil: a system of “conditional cash transfers” that provides money to poor mothers if their children go to health clinics and attend school. The plan worked.

Addressing sustained poverty in adults can prove difficult, she says, because often the poor don’t have access to the skills, such as literacy, that allow them to climb the economic ladder. Yet if their children have access to those skills, the cycle can be broken between generations.

“You really can stop the intergenerational transmission of poverty if you can get kids to be healthy and in school,” she says. “This is a big revelation in development policy and one of the few interventions that people unanimously think works.”

Today, 5 million children are enrolled in the program in Turkey, which the government fully funds with no further money from the World Bank. Braithwaite partnered with the Turkish statistics agency to study the results. Preliminary research indicates that since 2002, the rate of poverty in Turkey has dropped from 27 percent to 6 percent. Further, extreme poverty—incomes below $1.25 per capita per day—has virtually vanished.

“Extreme poverty in Turkey was quite low in 2002 and is nonexistent now,” she says. “It’s statistically indistinguishable from zero.”

Following the project, Braithwaite co-authored major follow-up assessments with Turkey’s statistical agency. In a recent donor-financed trip to Turkey with a class of Batten students, officials from that agency decided to share much of its data with Braithwaite—24 CD discs filled with household survey results. “I’m personally very thrilled,” she says. She never expected to receive so much data, but her work with Turkey over the years created a depth of relationship and a resulting level of trust. “It’s a great lesson for my students,” she says.

Many other nations are now developing systems for conditional cash transfers, bringing the strategy alongside microcredit and other innovations that have proven effective in recent years. “Poverty is a multidimensional problem and it can’t be fought on one aspect,” Braithwaite adds. “It needs to be fought in as many dimensions as it manifests.”


From Refugee Camps

Locked in and locked out

As a scholar long invested in social-justice activism, Christine Mahoney has recently turned her attention to a worst-case scenario: displaced peoples in refugee camps around the world. Where the work of Jeanine Braithwaite and others has made tremendous progress with people at the bottom of the economic ladder, even that bottom rung is out of reach for people in refugee camps.

Forbidden by law from working outside the camp, refugees find themselves trapped in a kind of poverty singularity—a place where conditions are so extreme that the normal rules have broken down. The displaced have no freedom of movement and no freedom to work.

“These are 40 million people worldwide, forcibly displaced, essentially living in hell for decades,” Mahoney says. She set out to do field research in refugee camps in conflict zones, searching to find which aid organizations were best able to push for the rights of the people they were trying to serve.

“What I found was depressing,” she says. The organizations are deeply constrained by the demands of their primary mission and by their need to maintain positive relationships with host nations. “It’s almost impossible for them to advocate for rights.”

Effective advocacy requires leverage, Mahoney says. In functioning democracies, organized citizens have leverage through votes and money. But aid organizations have no leverage. They are already under-resourced in their first priority: providing life-saving food and medicine. Ex-patriot aid workers have little political power and refugees are not citizens.

Host nations say they have their own poor to consider, so refugees are forbidden from participating in the economy outside the camp. They can’t leave and they can’t work.

So, personal effort is locked in the camp while organizational advocacy is locked out and governmental resources are in a lockbox. What’s left?

What’s left, Mahoney discovered, is the personal economic empowerment of the refugees themselves.

Refugee camps are societies; some can have a quarter-million or more occupants. Within these communities, Mahoney kept discovering people who had set up little businesses—a honeybee cooperative here, a small market there—all motivated by refugees’ strong desire to make something work.

“Refugees are true-blue entrepreneurs,” she says. “When you’ve lost everything, you need to figure out how to rebuild from nothing.”

Mahoney says the refugees’ initiative brings to mind the “lean startup” approach that’s all the rage in the entrepreneurial world today. The prospect for amplifying such initiative to a tipping point of transformation may lie at the intersection of two other trends: outsourcing and crowdsourcing.

"What people are increasingly doing is gathering evidence about what interventions work or don't work to solve problems. That's what public policy is."

Jeanine Braithwaite

For example, Samasource is an innovative organization that outsources data-entry to unexpected places. Refugees who are trained in digital work can begin building income and economic clout without ever leaving the camp.

Mahoney also cites Kiva, which crowdsources microcredit, connecting individual lenders with small entrepreneurs. In the context of a camp, refugees can be empowered without direct involvement from the host country.

Mahoney is working on a book describing the spectrum of challenges facing refugees as well as possible solutions. She imagines a scenario where crowdsourcing builds public awareness to the point of leverage with host countries—allowing refugees greater rights and economic freedom while giving host counties an economic incentive to integrate refugees into the larger populace.

Such social entrepreneurship offers hope, she says, in a world with hundreds of thousands more people to feed every day. “We will never close that gap through charity alone. We need all hands on deck. We need every sector—public, private, nonprofit. The need is massive.”


Hard data for hard problems

In her years at the World Bank, Jeanine Braithwaite discovered that if you have a systemic failure, you need a systemic response.

“What people are increasingly doing,” she says, “is gathering evidence about what interventions work or don’t work to solve problems. That’s what public policy is. If the government hasn’t solved the problem, if there is a market failure that is not solving the problem, what do we do?”

What Batten scholars are doing—and training the next generation to do—is hard research to take on hard problems. Cookie-cutter approaches will no longer work, if they ever worked in the past. No idea is out-of-bounds and none is sacred.

All hands on deck. 


Alternative Futures