Summer school with J-PAL Europe: Developing skills for building, testing and scaling innovations for development

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How can we support researchers, policymakers and program implementers in low- and middle-income countries to a) identify innovative solutions to global development challenges, and b) conduct and/or use the results of impact evaluations to inform development programs and policies?

In July 2021, J-PAL Europe, in partnership with the French Development Agency (AFD), hosted a seven-day summer school under the theme of “Innovations for Development,'' designed around the recent launch of France’s Fund for Innovation in Development (FID). The Fund, chaired by Esther Duflo and hosted by AFD, was created in order to identify, test and scale innovative development solutions in low and middle-income countries, including a commitment to fostering such work in the 19 priority countries for French development assistance.

With close to fifty participants (development practitioners, policymakers, researchers, and PhD students) from international organizations, governments, research institutions, and NGOs, the summer school is part of J-PAL Europe’s larger effort to strengthen local capacities in the design and implementation of innovative solutions for development, and equip participants to better engage with funding instruments such as FID.

Cementing the role of evaluations in development processes

The summer school sought to equip participants with technical tools to better engage with impact evaluations and their results, and stimulate a broader reflection on the policy implications and challenges of systematizing the use of impact evaluations to guide programs and policies. To achieve this dual objective, the program innovated by incorporating supplemental modules focused on the institutionalization of evidence-based policymaking.

For instance, contributions from J-PAL colleagues in Africa and South Asia gave participants a realistic view of the challenges of institutionalizing an evidence-based approach to programming and policymaking. We also invited representatives of the governments of Côte d’Ivoire and Tamil Nadu (India) to discuss the adaptation process of Teaching at the Right Level from India to countries in Africa, the establishment of the long-standing institutional partnership between J-PAL and the Government of Tamil Nadu, and the role of impact evaluations played in each of these processes.

A core component of the summer school was a series of keynote lectures (presented in French, with English subtitles) from J-PAL and AFD researchers that highlighted the research frontier in different areas of development economics, and the role that impact evaluations can play in informing and improving the effectiveness of public policies:

Esther Duflo (MIT): Opening session: Innovation and Development

In the opening keynote, Esther Duflo details how experimental research can be a tool for generating responses to development challenges, and the role that development assistance can play in fostering innovations for development.

Leonard Wantchekon (Princeton University): Intrinsic Effects of Institutions: Theory and applications to field experiments on governance

How can we best identify and separate out the intrinsic effect of an institution from the effect of some associated policy? To answer this question, Leonard Wantchekon presents a theoretical approach to randomized evaluation of institutions, in which, unlike traditional experiments, the treatment is not a policy (e.g. teacher training, or cash transfers), but a decision-making process (e.g. voting, or deliberation) over a menu of policy options.

Pascaline Dupas (Stanford University): Ensuring Basic Health for All

Preventive health is essential for improving the health of populations and is often a cost-effective way to reduce the disease burden. Yet, the uptake of many effective preventive health products remains low, and some of the challenges to increasing their usage have been exacerbated by the health crisis. In this keynote, Pascaline Dupas takes stock of the latest insights regarding access to basic health services and products in low-income countries, and explores unanswered questions where further research is needed to inform health policy decisions.

Bruno Crépon (ENSAE and Ecole Polytechnique): Improving the Efficiency of Labor Markets

What insights can we draw from randomized evaluations of labor market interventions seeking to address labor markets (information, transportation costs, signalling)? Bruno Crépon presents the body of evidence from randomized evaluations on labor market frictions, with a particular focus on the underlying mechanisms driving such inefficiencies.

Luc Behaghel (Paris School of Economics): Transforming Agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa

Recent experimental research has highlighted the role of inclusive value chains, such as vertical contracts between small-scale producers and buyers, in providing the inputs and incentives necessary for productivity gains and overcoming market failures. Luc Behaghel's keynote presents a selection of field experiments seeking to identify barriers to adoption of more productive agricultural technologies, and to the intensification of family farming in sub-Saharan Africa.

Claire Zanuso (AFD) and Kenneth Houngbedji (French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development: Evaluating the Impact of a Donor’s Actions

How can we report on the impacts of structural endeavors financed by a donor such as AFD, while contributing to the production of knowledge to improve future projects? Claire Zanuso and Kenneth Houngbedji present two recent evaluations undertaken in the Congo Basin to assess the impacts of improving drinking water infrastructure in urban areas, particularly on the incidence of cholera, and supporting public policies to improve forest management.

The closing presentation from FID executive director Juliette Seban gave participants concrete insights on the relevance of the week-long training content for engaging with funding instruments like those offered by FID.

Creating more opportunities to learn

We sent a survey to all participants to collect their assessment of the summer school; 75% of participants filled out the questionnaire. Overall, data from the survey indicated a high level of satisfaction with the course content, as all respondents reported being either “very satisfied” (59%) or satisfied (41%). 

In addition to appreciating the varied course content, participants’ feedback highlighted the relevance of a summer school conducted in French, when so many similar resources are delivered in English, creating barriers to participation for some participants. The dominance of the English language in academia can be a source of inequality, furthering the isolation of French-speaking researchers and reducing access to information relevant for their field of activity.

Thematic workshops on the design of randomized evaluations were built in the course to help practitioners apply what they were learning in the course to their own projects. Feedback collected from participants indicated a demand for more ways to directly apply in-depth sessions of this nature. Although the format of the summer school did not allow for more in-depth training sessions, participants eager to build on the summer school courses were redirected towards an upcoming advanced-level course on experimental research offered by J-PAL Africa.

Furthering institutional partnerships

Over the last few months, the landscape of France’s development assistance policy has rapidly evolved, culminating with the recent adoption of the programming Act on inclusive development and combating global inequalities. Informed by a 2018 report on the “modernization of partnerships and international solidarity policy,” the new bill elevates the role of evaluation in French development assistance policy, for instance recommending the creation of an independent body to evaluate the impact of French aid. The creation of the FID fits into a larger effort to facilitate the identification of local solutions to global challenges, and associate local capacities in this process to sustain such efforts.

Beyond its practical benefits for the participants—82% of participants indicated that the content taught during the summer school would be applicable to their activities in the short term—the summer school represented an opportunity to renew and develop J-PAL’s partnership with the French Development Agency. Just as France is increasing its development assistance commitments, a robust partnership with the AFD, the main implementing body of French aid, will help catalyze efforts to promote development policies and programs backed by rigorous evidence.

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