Social protection and extreme poverty- thinking about evidence and influence

This is a blog on a session from ‘Evidence and the Politics of Policymaking: Where next?’, a Symposium from the Institute for Policy Research and Centre for Development Studies (CDS) at the University of Bath, September 14-15 2016. Highlights and recordings from the Symposium can be found here.

By Daniel Wroe

Social protection programmes have been one of the policy arenas in which randomised control trials have been extensively used to present evidence of impact. The Social Protection and Extreme Poverty panel at the recent Symposium, “Evidence and the Politics of Policymaking: what next?” at the University of Bath questioned the role this evidence plays in policy change.

The panel, chaired by the University of Bath’s Rana Jawad, was opened by her colleague Theo Papadopoulos, who presented a review of evidence on Conditional Cash Transfers (CCTs) in Latin America. Through the presentation he encouraged the audience to think critically about causality in the link between CCTs and any decline in measures of extreme poverty. Using H.T. Chen’s work on programme evaluation and assessment, Theo questioned the impacts of CCTs on a number of poverty indicators. While the discreet evaluations that are built into CCT programmes themselves often claim significant relationships between the CCT programmes and changes in poverty indicators, these evaluations do not help establish the relative impact of CCTs alongside other social and economic programmes which may be implemented at the national level. Theo showed that some countries that have spent less on CCTs actually have a better record of reducing extreme poverty than those that have spent more, leading to the conclusion that the wider policy context into which CCTs are introduced is extremely important. It is when CCTs operate in conjunction with other social and economic programmes that they may have an influence on reducing extreme poverty.

Joe Devine, also from the University of Bath, reflected on his work on the Extreme Poverty Programme in Bangladesh. Opening Joe suggested, ‘Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted’. He explained that enabling one million Bangladeshis to raise themselves out of poverty was, in a sense, the easy part of the Extreme Poverty Programme. The bigger challenge was rather to convince the Bangladeshi government to adopt a focus on extreme poverty in their next five-year national development strategy. Referencing Bent Flyvberg’s work on the Aristotelian typology of approaches to knowledge – Episteme, Techne, and Phronesis – Joe challenged the audience to think about the latter, how knowledge engages with values in its application. The Bangladeshi government adopted an emphasis on the extreme poor in its five-year plan as result of the narratives, networks and dialogue put forward through the Extreme Poverty Programme at apposite moments. In this sense the knowledge that influenced the five-year plan was not created through ‘objective’ analysis, but via a richer kind of reasoning and argument of which the ‘objective’ analysis was only one part.

Charles Lwanga-Ntale, from the Humanitarian Leadership Academy in Nairobi, Kenya, concluded the presentations reflecting on his long experience in development and policy work in sub-Saharan Africa. He opened by quoting what he had heard Idi Amin say to him and his follow school pupils, that ‘knowledge is not important, only power’. Picking up on some of the points Joe Devine had made, Charles went on to discuss how evidence cases have been made for social protection programmes in Africa over many years but these had not, in most cases, led to the adoption or adjustment of programmes. Charles pointed out that when he had worked on the World Bank’s ‘Voices of the Poor’ project there had been a similar disjuncture. Evidence cases just did not produce the policy changes that researchers believed that they should. Charles concluded that while Amin is gone, the issue of power continues to loom large in development policy in Africa.

The questions and discussion at the end of the panel engaged with the challenge all the presenters had given about the extent to which it is helpful to think that policy is influenced by ‘objective’ data, knowledge or evidence. The discussion had application far beyond social protection. Theo Papadopoulos pointed out the continuing significance of epistemic communities in assessment and policy making. Charles Lwanga-Ntale meanwhile suggested a way to transcend those bounded communities, emphasising the importance of trust and relationships in policymaking, of being aware of the personal conditions and pressures under which policy makers themselves are living and working, and presenting an evidence case accordingly. Charles’ comments resonated with the encouragement Joe Devine gave in his presentation to consider knowledge as something other than simply those conclusions reached through a ‘scientific process’, but those that are obtained though values, and a vision of how the world should be.

I left the panel thinking about a distinction I have often heard drawn between ‘knowledge’ and ‘wisdom’, the former being ‘facts’ of which one is aware, and the latter being the ability to make normative judgments, applying knowledge. The distinction is much the same as the one Joe Devine drew out between Epesteme and Phronesis. Having listened to the panel in the context of the conference as a whole, I am more convinced that a distinction between knowledge and wisdom is helpful, and not just a matter of semantics. Given the extent to which doubt about the validity of ‘expert knowledge’ has grown in some quarters, with regard to all kinds of social programmes, it seems important that experts adopt approaches that allow their knowledge to be tested in a range of ways, and engaged from a variety of viewpoints, in order that the wisdom of proposed policies and programmes might be ascertained.

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