WES-FID: Some thoughts

I thought yesterday’s student-run Forum on International Development was a great success. The event was well-organized and well-attended. But most of all, I think there were opportunities for just about everyone who attended to learn something new.

Here is what I observed:

Morning Keynote
David Rice, Executive Director of NYU’s Development Research Institute, gave a nice opening keynote address, mapping out a macro-oriented perspective on development trends.

Approaches to Development
We were all invited to choose one of three presentations on “approaches to development”. I chose the Technology seminar led by Amir Hasson (Wesleyan ’98), Founder of United Villages. I thought this was a great talk about the ups and downs of being a social entrepreneur. He discussed how he began with a project developed for a graduate class at MIT to provide rural areas in India with internet access. That became an actual project implemented in Cambodia, a project which helped created UV. But today, about 10 years later, UV is doing something very different: connecting rural retailers with a more efficient supply chain. Some of the lessons: (i) you have to be ready to go when opportunities arise; (ii) you have to listen to those you want to help; (iii) technology can be an important tool for development but it comes with some caveats, including obsolescence (their technological solution for providing internet access is less useful today) and dependence on the specific development context; (iv) you need to be flexible and adaptable to take into account the above; and (v) success requires committed leadership which includes careful management at the local level.

I found it interesting that Amir did not see politics as playing a big role in their activities. Obviously, I am biased as a political scientist. But for him, the biggest issue seemed to be getting past the red-tape necessary in India for their ISP. Governance issues, in terms of their activities, were relatively unimportant. He did mention, however, that a project they did in Rwanda might have proved to be the exception to that experience. This made me wonder a bit how much the “governance” frame in development relies on a type of African exceptionalism.

Wesleyan Non-Profits
After these seminars were a series of workshops for critically assess non-profits students at Wesleyan have created. I was assigned to moderate a discussion of SHOFCO. I commented briefly about this a couple days ago. Given the expertise of our guest panelists, Harvard Professor Rema Hanna and Conner Brannen (IPA, Wesleyan ’10 and a former student of mine), we focused on the process of evaluation. I thought some of the important suggestions for SHOFCO, included:

  • Take the time to learn from the existing literature about what works;
  • Continue to build on your monitoring and evaluation program;
  • Learn from similar groups who are engaged in monitoring and evaluation (what are their best practices?); and
  • Don’t try to measure too many things with one survey.

Both Kennedy Odede and Nathan Mackenzie did a great job explaining SHOFCO’s mission and addressing some of the concerns. Both seemed to acknowledge the challenges of making the project sustainable for the long-term and the potential for mission creep. In terms of the latter, they seem to have had success thus far at finding projects that are synergistic, but there is always the concern of taking on too much before perfecting the rest. And, as Conner noted, it may be harder to measure progress in one area when one is moving in multiple directions at the same time.

In terms of involvement with the Wesleyan Community, there seemed to be a general consensus that this was a good thing that should continue into the future. As Professor Hanna noted, this is good for the students (it exposes them to parts of the world they may not otherwise visit) and for the people of Kibera (in terms of knowledge transfer). At least, I hope I am remembering her correctly! Conner and others mentioned how to them SHOFCO will always be part of the Wesleyan community. This place played a role as an incubator. Hopefully, it can assist the organization as it matures.

Lunch: Awesome food, as always, from Iguanas Ranas.

Afternoon Keynote
Nathanael Goldberg (Wesleyan ’98),
Policy Director at Innovations for Poverty Action, spoke on “How do we know what works in development?”. I thought this was the best talk of the day. Being a little familiar with IPA’s work, I suppose there wasn’t a whole lot of new information for me, but it was well-delivered and comprehensive. I especially liked how he framed what they do (randomized control trials) with the uncertain findings of past research on development projects, especially micro-finance. What I didn’t realize before yesterday was how ambitious the scope of their work is: more than 400 projects right now. There have been criticisms of their approach to development and it might have been nice to hear some of that debate flagged for our students. As they mention on their own website, there has been a little backlash. I talked recent with an economist about Randomized Control Trials and he mentioned his concern that some developing countries might be getting over-saturated with these projects. And that could become a problem. But it was inspiring to hear their mission and their success thus far. A number of our students and alumni have done work for IPA and I hope more continue to do so.

Small Lectures
There were several choices and I decided to attend Professor Rema Hanna’s lecture on “Randomized Experiments to Improve Policy”. I thought this was an especially useful talk for our students who have not been exposed to research methods. She did a great job at presenting the experimental approach that she and her development colleagues at J-PAL and IPA are using. Unfortunately…

That was the end for me…
Unfortunately, I was unable to stay until the end. And I even missed the end of Hanna Rema’s lecture. But I really came away appreciating the wonderful event our students organized. I was glad to see both of my thesis students — Rachel Levenson and Kathlyn Pattillo – playing key leadership roles alongside a host of others. I hope students consider repeating this event in the future!