Samantha Carter, J-PAL ‘20, on bringing innovative ideas to life
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Samantha Carter is a former senior policy associate at J-PAL Global, where she played a leading role in managing J-PAL’s government scale-up initiative and the finance sector within the policy team. Now a research and operations manager at Precision Development (PxD), she works to take innovative ideas out of research proposals and into practice. She reflects on her path to building a meaningful career and the complex processes of fundraising for scale-ups and managing field research.
What drew you to the field of development? Tell us a bit about your background and what you were looking for in a career.
I've always known that I wanted to do something that would make a difference in the world. And I used a lot of my classes in both undergraduate and graduate school and my internships to figure out what exactly that would look like—did it mean working in government, at a think tank, did it mean focusing domestically or internationally? And throughout, I've always really liked quantitative reasoning and analytical thinking, which made development economics a good choice.
Now that I think of it, most of my career decisions have been driven by reading a book. I took a class on behavioral economics in which we read Nudge and Thinking, Fast and Slow. Those books, the papers cited in them, and the human behavior modeling skills we learned showed me that you can use economics not just for finance or consulting, but also to understand people and to make a difference in the world.
In grad school, I wanted to continue along the path of using applied microeconomics and statistics to measure program impact. I lucked into reading Poor Economics, which is where I first came across J-PAL and the randomized evaluation movement. I decided that I wanted to work as a research assistant at either J-PAL or Innovations for Poverty Action, so I spent the rest of my grad school experience and internships building toward that goal.
You came to J-PAL after having interned at an impressive array of policy organizations—think tanks, USAID, the US State Department, and the World Bank. How did these shape your path to J-PAL?
A colleague of mine at PxD says that one of the most important things that you can do for your own professional development is understand your strengths and your weaknesses, and think about how you balance them—both figuring out how you can add value naturally, or through your past experience, and also recognizing where you have room for improvement. I used my internships to understand those things about myself.
Through my work at the World Bank and think tanks I gained hard skills like data analysis and working with Excel and Salesforce, but the experiences also helped me become familiar with the process of learning new systems and figuring out when to ask questions. Through these internships I was fortunate to have met a lot of great mentors who helped me understand what my goals were, and what things I should look for in future jobs, and then connected me to the right people to learn more about those jobs.
These experiences also contributed to my knowing that I wanted to work at a place where there was a strong sense of community and a strong shared sense of mission. The people were one of the big reasons that I ended up deciding to work on J-PAL’s Global policy team, because I couldn't imagine not working with the people that I met through the interviews.
You were instrumental in managing J-PAL’s Innovation in Government Initiative (IGI), one of our primary formal means of working with governments to test and scale innovations. Could you give us a behind-the-scenes look at the process of working on a research and scaling initiative, and what some of your main learnings were from that experience?
I had the opportunity to work with Claire Walsh, the Associate Director of Policy at J-PAL Global, to shape IGI. Based on stories of policy change coming out of government/academic partnerships through J-PAL’s regional offices and the Government Partnership Initiative (GPI), IGI’s predecessor that supported a number of research-focused collaborations between academics and governments, we wanted to shift our focus to the scale-up aspect of these partnerships.
To do that pivot, we did an extensive review of what we and partner organizations had done in the past to scale policies, and the successes and failures within that. In addition to a lot of desk research, this involved qualitative interviews with about twenty of J-PAL’s current and former government partners, many based in Latin America.
This review helped us think through how to build a vehicle that will facilitate scale-ups that are likely to succeed, and what criteria we should look for in a proposal. Some specific things we learned to look for, for example, are the quality of the relationship between the researchers and the implementing institution, and whether there was an evidence champion within the government.
And then, of course, we had to fundraise so that we had the resources to support those promising proposals. This meant finding funders who wanted to support the scale-up of evidence-informed policies, which was a challenge for several reasons. At the time, there was a pretty small number of funders who were interested in getting a program from small-scale NGO implementation to large-scale government implementation. The process can be really messy in the middle, which means that funders have a hard time understanding all the steps they’d actually be supporting.
So we had to do quite a lot of work to do to make a case that was compelling to different types of funders. In addition to the fundraising aspect, we also needed to think about selecting a board of academics for IGI, which meant finding a group of researchers who had both the bandwidth to be careful proposal reviewers and experience working with governments to evaluate and scale policies. We also needed to think about which types of innovations had a sufficient evidence base that we would feel comfortable supporting their scale-up.
You’ve since taken your talents to a close partner of J-PAL’s, Precision Development (PxD), formerly known as Precision Agriculture for Development. Could you tell us about your new role?
I’m now a global research and operations manager at Precision Development (PxD), which is both an implementing and a research organization. Our work aims to harness technology, data science, and research to empower people living in poverty and improve their lives. Generally speaking, we work with partners including governments, multilaterals, and other NGOs, to deliver information on their behalf or as a supplement to their existing programming.
Our primary work so far has been in the space of digital agricultural extension services. We send farmers information via their mobile phones in the way that is most appropriate for the context. So in India, we send voice calls, while in Kenya, we send SMS messages in the local language. We're sending them advice that is customized to their particular circumstances, in order to enable them to improve their productivity, therefore improve their yields, and then ultimately increase their profits.
I manage our research in the state of Gujarat in India, where we own and operate our own digital agricultural advisory service called Krishi Tarang (which means “agricultural wave” in Gujarati). Because we operate our own service, without representing a partner organization, we think of our work here as a sandbox for developing new ideas that have the potential to improve our work worldwide, and that of our partner organizations. For example, some of the work that we're doing there is focused on actually not just disseminating information, but collecting information from within farmers’ communities that we can then use to improve either the timeliness or the customization or just the relevance of our advice.
As a research manager, I figure out what the researchers are interested in testing and work with a team including agronomists, tech and product development staff, and research associates to do prototyping and piloting to understand how things can actually work on the ground. Recently, I've spent a bunch of time reading through things like the regulations on how to send mass WhatsApp messages.
On the other end, once we've done the research or collected insights, my job is also to figure out how to apply those insights to the programs in Gujarat and to make the information accessible so that others can think about how to apply it to their own context.
How does it feel to be working in research implementation now, after a policy job at J-PAL?
It's both surprisingly similar and surprisingly different. I think the similarities are that I still think all the time about what the existing evidence says, and how we can apply it to a particular context. I reference J-PAL’s generalizability framework multiple times a week, if not more. I'm now closer to the local context than I am to the global body of evidence, but it's still the same question: How do you link up those two things?
The differences are that I spend a lot more time thinking about very granular implementation questions that wouldn't come up even in the most detailed reading of an academic paper. Anytime I read a paper now in which the authors discuss distributing financial incentives, my first thought is, what were the regulations that they had to go through to make sure they could distribute money to that many participants? How did they actually operationalize it? How did they know that people would be able to receive money in that way, and how did they make sure that the right people received the right amounts?
Precision Development’s work is evolving since rebranding just a couple months ago. Could you tell us more about PxD’s new vision?
When there's an opportunity for information that has the potential to improve lives to be delivered in this really low-cost way (via mobile phones), we don't want to limit ourselves to focusing only on agriculture just because that is where we got our start. The rebranding was more of expansion. It's more an acknowledgement of the fact that our technology, and our approach to doing things, has implications well beyond agriculture. We want to make sure that we can take advantage of those opportunities when they present themselves.