I had blogged earlier about the contrasting views of evidence in development. While the academia and funders in developed world are obsessed with evidence, their implementing counter-parties in the developing world, even the most perceptive ones, show far less interest. What explains this divergence?
I can think of three immediate concerns.
1. One is a reaction to a long history of frustration in trying and failing to make development happen in these countries. The likes of William Easterly channel this as the latest version of the colonial conceit. The logical response to this frustration was to rationalise that we do not know the context and therefore need to allow the primary stakeholders to experiment and figure out what is best for them. And an objective evidence dimension to that process of discovery, and a part in it, is possibly the only direct role for outsiders. In fact, given the priors, it can be the best "risk mitigation" instrument to avoid wasteful spending.
2. The field of academic research in development economics today, for whatever reasons, is excessively aligned in the direction of field experiments. The logical neatness of the associated theory of change and the amenability to statistical rigour (with its aura of scientificity), makes field experiments and evidence generation very attractive. The requirements of paper publication contribute to and amplify this trend.
3. Donors, private and public, are faced the same procurement challenge that governments have always grappled with. What is the baseline basis for their investment? Government procurements address this by establishing a price discovery mechanism. For donors, evidence has become the very convenient baseline. So, if there is a rigorous enough evidence, then other things being equal and given conformity with the broad investment criterion, the investment passes the most fundamental due-diligence test. It is therefore no surprise that like with governments trying to refine their bid parameters, donors try to hone their evidence base.
I have no response to the second and third explanations since they are essentially structural incentive problems. They have nothing to do with the field challenges of making development happen in developing countries. The first one demands a response and I have tried to make a case here and here.
As a very strong disclaimer, lest this be misconstrued, this is no argument against evidence. Readers of this blog would doubtless appreciate my strong advocacy of the use of evidence and support for the iterative approach to program scale up.
It is just that the obsession with evidence, bordering on developing first principles every time, is a frustrating digression. Unfortunately, it ends up detracting significantly from the likelihood of achieving the objective and is no less bad than the earlier version of micro-managed aid.