What development issues do we need more research on?

Every development research paper I ever absent-mindedly skim pore over with fascination seems to end with NMR (needs more research) – a blatant piece of self-justification, but usually justified (anyone got any candidates for areas where we need less research? Anything

Top placard from Jon Stewart's recent Rally to Restore Sanity
Top placard from Jon Stewart's recent Rally to Restore Sanity

involving cross country regressions or ‘discourse analysis’ perhaps?) But research on what? Research funders are ever-hungry for the next big idea, preferably a few years in advance in order to allow the research machine to lumber into action in time to produce some useful results when they are needed.

So when asked recently for my suggestions to add to the customary list (governance; food security; civil society; technology; beliefs and values; risk and resilience; urban etc) of possible focus areas for research, I tried a change of tack. Rather than thematic areas, what about some cross-cutting ones, for example:

1. The role of shocks in triggering change: research papers are usually written as if policy changes are decided in some University Senior Common Room, by enlightened leaders who debate the evidence and then calmly decide on the necessary changes. In reality, the political process is far more chaotic than that, and big shifts are often linked to big shocks. Examples from the UK include women’s suffrage (World War One) and the creation of the Britain’s National Health Service (World War Two). In the developing world, natural disasters often lead to political change (Ethiopia, Nicaragua), as do wars and civil conflict (Rwanda). So how well do we understand the situations in which different kinds of shocks do/don’t trigger change?

2. The limits of measurement: the metrics fundamentalists are in the ascendant at the moment, arguing that Einstein was wrong and everything that counts can be counted. That may be true in theory (discuss) but in the real world of harassed civil servants, spending cuts and intense pressure for Value For Money, the easily measured (vaccinations, schoolrooms, roads) is highly likely to squeeze out the tricky-but-vital stuff (rights, empowerment, well-being, insecurity). The current debate is unhelpfully polarised between true believers and angry rejectionists, so how about a more distanced look at what measurement can/can’t achieve in a world of limited resources. How far have we got in developing cheap and practical ways to include the tricky stuff in our metrics? What alternatives are there to crude metrics that can help us judge the success/otherwise of a particular intervention, and provide similar levels of accountability?

But I’d be interested in hearing from you guys – what development topics have you been reading/thinking about that might warrant that awful cliché ‘out of the box’. Candidates from this blog include obesity, ageing and disability, interestingly all issues that transcend old ‘North-South’ distinctions. What others have you got up your collective sleeves?

And yes, I realize that this obsessive search for funky new ideas is a bit of a problem if the real obstacles to development are the age-old themes of poverty, skewed land rights, lack of health and education, gender injustice, discrimination etc. All very boring, unless you happen to be experiencing them directly. It’s harder to get research funding (or academic credit) for ‘more of the same’, even if that’s what needs doing. Anyone seen any good advice on how to dress up old issues as new ones in order to secure funding?

Honourable mention (and who knows, maybe massive injections of funding) for the best suggestions. I may even take it to a vote……

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15 Responses to “What development issues do we need more research on?”
  1. Catherine Dom

    What about focusing on real villages and people in it over the longish term? What does happen there in reality, and how much of it is due to ‘development interventions’?
    See http://www.wed-ethiopia.org/ and the new ‘point in time’ we are hoping to make for 20 villages in Ethiopia (we went to 6 earlier this year) at http://www.wed-ethiopia.org/wide3.htm

    Duncan: Thanks Catherine. It does feel like the interest in longitudinal work is on the increase, so good issue.

  2. Rosaline Hirschowitz

    Thank you for this blog. It is interesting, but I think the whole approach taken here regarding what research needs to be done is wrong. The wrong people, i.e. those in “developed countries”, are setting the agenda by deciding on research priorities and research topics. I think that the people and the researchers themselves in the “developing countries” should be setting this agenda, and actually carrying out the research, instead of allowing those researchers from developed countries to do so, however well-intentioned. If research is to address the problems of development, surely the voice of those actually affected by research findings should lead this process.

    Duncan: Thanks Rosaline. It’s not quite that bad – the funder in question is making sure a good chunk of its money goes to researchers in the global South. But you’re right, it needs to apply the same criteria to deciding its agenda as well.

  3. Charlie Miller

    Tax avoidance and evasion in development: Given the potentially enormous implications of this, I’m surprised at how little research has been done, particularly with regards to systematically analysing firm-level data, national accounting data and tax audit data. Guess there just aren’t enough development accountants out there…

  4. The two cross-cutting areas I’ve been trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to find good research on are:

    – Youth-led development – there are lots of case studies and guides covering how young people can be involved in particular development projects: and a strong case to be made for treating young as an ‘asset to development, rather than a ‘problem’. But good evaluations that dig into the how, and impacts of youth-led development outside small pilot projects seems to be lacking.

    – Impacts of open data and transparency – still an emerging area – so the lack of good research possibly understandable (and there may be strong links to the ‘limits of measurement’ research agenda. But with open data/transparency policies being justified on the basis of their contribution to democracy – more work to identify the mechanisms by which data does support democracy and better outcomes, and the mediating factors (which I suspect will include quite a lot of Active Citizens, Effective States type content) seems necessary before we get some quite paradoxical non-evidence-based policy…

    Duncan: yep, definitely time we asked what all this transparency work is actually achieving

  5. Duncan

    Interesting question.

    Two things I would be interested in (which are related).

    First, external validity. That’s a pompous way of asking how likely it is that an intervention that works in one community will work in another. When we test medicines we assume (with a few exceptions) that a drug that works for one group of people will likely affect other populations in similar ways. An important empirical question is which kinds of social (as opposed to medical) interventions have broadly the same effects everywhere, and which are very context specific. (Lots of development workers assert that context is very important, but the evidence, such as it is, tends to suggest otherwise).

    Second, I’d like to know more about how (and indeed whether) outside interventions affect social change. We know from countless evaluations that externally driven technical assistance hardly ever works. We know that externally driven governance and institutional reform programs almost never work. If you were in charge of the DfID / Nike Girl Hub (http://www.girlhub.org/) how would you go about “elevating girls’ needs and voices” in other people’s countries?

    Kind regards

    Duncan: Thanks Owen, both excellent ideas – particularly like the idea of trying to identify the conditions in which external interventions have traction – like looking at evaluation through the other end of the telescope.

  6. John Magrath

    The World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group has just published a good report on the Bank’s funding for climate change mitigation – it’s at http://www.worldbank.org/ieg/climatechangeII/index.html The IEG uses solid research to show, among many things, that unglamorous interventions in energy efficiency are hugely productive and effective. And that carbon offset sales are little use for funding renewable energy programmes. Interesting stuff, with potentially big implications for where the Bank puts its money.

    The report does though show that there are a plethora of areas – really pretty basic areas – about which the Bank is still embarrassingly ignorant (so I suspect is everyone else).

    Discussing learning the IEG says: “While recent demonstration projects have good plans for monitoring the direct results of demonstration, they do not yet track how effectively these results are reaching their intended audience.

    “As other IEG reports have noted, cost-benefit analysis has fallen out of fashion, impeding the WBG’s ability to identify high-return investments. The estimates quoted here remain an unvalidated and possibly overoptimistic guide. The lack of good impact evaluations of forest projects, for instance, has deprived the REDD agenda of urgently needed guidance on how best to combine forest protection with economic development….

    “Systematic feedback is missing from most projects, though IFC’s monitoring system is beginning to cover it. It is especially needed for renewable energy projects, where economic and carbon impacts are proportional to capacity utilization. Many hydro and wind projects are underperforming for reasons that are not clear”.

    Maybe get the basics right before looking for the next big research idea? or at least do both and don’t let novelty hog the funds.

  7. Nicholas Colloff

    My candidates would be:

    1) when does campaigning on an issue hinder rather than enable change and in what ways? We could call this the dynamics of campaign alienation!

    2) mental health and two areas especially: (a) the relationship between poverty and incidence, and poverty and management; and, (b) the relationship between meaningful work/social contribution and recovery.

  8. One note about this topic of ‘obesity’: what a lot of us in medicine and public health are finding is not so much that we should be talking about ‘obesity’ in poor countries as much as expanding the definition of ‘malnutrition’: alluding to your prior post, we’re seeing a lot of diabetes and heart disease in the same households as low-protein or low-nutrient diseases (see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11110855, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11502242 ). This is not because one member is eating ‘too much’ while another is getting ‘too little’ – but because diabetes is also a disease of *bad* nutrition, not just ‘over-nutrition’ (in fact, many of the rich eat way too much, and don’t get diabetes). As explained in a recent New England Journal of Medicine article (http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1000072), the way our metabolic system works is to hoard calories often when we are least able to guarantee a stable meal—so people who are typically the poorest and have the least food security and often go hungry are also the ones getting diabetes and it’s associated heart and kidney complications. The old distinction between infectious diseases and chronic non-communicable diseases is being torn down by a lot of the risks to good healthy-food access among the poorest people in both developed and developing countries; we indeed found that the MDGs, focused on infectious diseases, were inhibited by co-epidemics of non-communicable conditions (http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000241). So perhaps instead of isolating ‘obesity’ as a separate factor, we should incorporate ‘bad nutrition’ into our broader discussion of ‘malnutrition’, as that makes more sense from both the political economy and medical science perspectives.

  9. We are getting back to the point of defining “development”. Many moons ago when I was a first year student our teachers told us: “economic growth is increasing the total economic cake, while economic development related to changing the environment in which growth took place”. Thus, they said: “economic growth do not automatically lead to economic development but economic development always has an effect on economic growth.”

    As I see it the biggest challenge is not initially to start with large projects in either physical or social infrastructure but to change the ways people at family level interact with each other, produce what they need and how changes to these processes take place. This will require a hands on approach and close interaction with them. My experience is that when we get involved at the personal level and teach people at that level what needs to be done, then one can be successful.

    We do not really need a lot of research to achieve this, because it should be common sense. It seems to me that the research we need is how to get aid workers to use common sense rather than spend time and spend money on beautiful monuments to failure and excuses. Excuses do not add to either growth or development, but it creates a dependency on large quantities of useless money. This eventually leads to “poverty”, which I have not seen defined in any practical or measurable way. I do not believe it relates to a specific $ per day or whatever other measure we think should be used.

  10. Shupiwe

    Hi there Duncan, I reckon more research needs to be done on citizen action – not so much on how it works but maybe on how to get more of it? I don’t know though – that could be an oxymoron as most successful citizen action that has produced change has been spawned from the oppressed themselves. I am not sure if you can spark a revolution? Maybe you can feed it? I don’t know?

    And perhaps more research could go into the HDR which is far to quantitative. for example, it recorded Zambia as having been one of three countries who have a lower HDI today compared with 1990. I am skeptical about that as I recall the riots and food scarcity levels in Zambia in 1990 and it is hard to see how that was a better situation than the relative stability today. Yes some things have gone down but on the whole for the average Zambian life is better today then in 1990! Maybe again that is far too simple and I cannot speak for every Zambian! (perhaps more research needs to go into gross well being instead!) who knows really but great question!

    Ps btw your blog is a great platform for these types of debates (even if some of us… he he… get a little heated! and er if some of us are a little er…. he he…. Zambia Centric!) – well done!)

  11. I would appreciate guidance from research into how one goes about accessing “the people themselves” in developing countries and their wishes—rather than their wishes as represented by local elites. In those places where we find a confluence of hierarchic social structures with negligible communication infrastructure, one must swim against a strong current in order to reach out a hand to “the people themselves.”

    Maybe I don’t truly need research—just a pep talk now and then!—but I’d like to hear what people have to say about this, anyway.

  12. 1. No more does aid work please. But still plenty to be done along the lines of ‘what can aid realistically achieve’ and ‘what makes aid work’?

    2. The interactions between formal and informal institutions and how they impact on governance (plenty of research already, but plenty more needed).

    3. In developed countries — what domestic political factors lead to good aid being given; and what domestic factors lead to bad aid being given. This is something that is weighing on the minds of most New Zealand-based development professionals at present for obvious reasons: http://devpolicy.org/wither-new-zealand-aid/
    (sorry for the personal cause promotion)

  13. Gareth

    My top nominee for more research is the impact of climate change (as opposed to evidence it is happening). Everyone assumes there is a tonne of research, but although this might be the case in terms of climate data (and of course there is clearly a need for more of that), in terms of the impact on people, communities and societies its really quite difficult to find high-quality, authoritative, academic work.

  14. Scott

    1. Mental health. The work might be out there, but if so it is rarely discussed.

    2. Violence against women. It is a topic that gets a lot of attention, but appears to be subject to much less rigorous research than other topics (perhaps because of ethical concerns and research constraints?). When does it happen, why, what can be done to stop it, what makes reductino efforts successful?

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