New paper I like (02): Scholars Who Became Practitioners

At first sight and read, Nora Lustig's latest CGDev paper looks like an unspectatcular working paper with a long sub-title: 'Scholars Who Became Practitioners: The Influence of Research on the Design, Evaluation, and Political Survival of Mexico’s Antipoverty Program Progresa/Oportunidades'. The summary does not really tell you why I like this paper either:

Celebrated by academics, multilateral organizations, policymakers and the media, Mexico’s Progresa/ Oportunidades conditional cash transfers program (CCT) is constantly used as a model of a successful antipoverty program. Here I argue that the transformation of well-trained scholars into influential practitioners played a fundamental role in promoting a new conceptual approach to poverty reduction, ensuring the technical soundness and effectiveness of the program, incorporating rigorous impact evaluation, and persuading politicians to implement and keep the program in place. The involvement of scholar-practitioners also helped disseminate the new CCT “technology” to many countries around the world quite rapidly.
In fact, I like the paper for reason slightly different from Nora Lustig's main line of argument. It is an interesting example of how relationships matter in successful development programs and how 'we' as researchers, students, bloggers etc. still need to learn a lot about 'influencing policy' or 'impact' when we are not directly involved in (large) projects and programs. It is also a good example of how we need to take into consideration the framework in which policy formulation, implementation and evaluation take place even if a sophisticated quantitative framework is in place.
When Lustig highlights some of the academic and theoretical resources that shaped the programme it is interesting to see a footnote with a network of researchers/publications from the World Bank, IFPRI, IDS and names of academics and practitioners that have been inside the community for a long time (pp.5-6, footnote 14). On the following pages (pp.7-8) she includes a detailed account of people, meetings and connections that contributed to the evaluation framework which according to Lustig was a key pillar of the programme. 

On November 11, 1997, Lustig (1997a) sent an e-mail to Haddad, Gary Burtless at the Brookings Institute [sic] and 13 staff members of the World Bank (mostly empirical micro economists and policy analysts) inviting them to a workshop on December 10, 1997 to be held at the Inter-American Development Bank under the sponsorship of the Poverty and Inequality Advisory Unit (of which Lustig was the chief) “to discuss evaluation schemes of the recently launched target program in Mexico called PROGRESA” (she also noted that “The workshop will start with a presentation by Dr. Jose Gomez de Leon, the Director of PROGRESA” and provided a brief summary of the program). … [...]. Haddad, Ruel, and Quisumbing from IFPRI (Haddad 1998), Behrman, Gertler, and Schultz all attended the meeting (Heckman did not but asked Petra Todd to attend in his place, which she did) and subsequently became increasingly involved (under Haddad’s leadership and with substantial input from other IFPRI staff) in the development of the IFPRI proposal for undertaking the evaluation on which agreement was reached in the late summer of 1998.

I know, this looks complicated, but it is a good illustration of how policy 'works' on the ground, respectively meeting rooms in Washington, DC. Lusting also shares in detail the academic socialistion of key architects of the programme and the personal links between them (p.11):

Santiago Levy, the program’s intellectual architect in its pilot phase, has a Ph.D. from Boston University and for many years was an academic at the Instituto Tecnológico
Autónomo de Mexico (ITAM) and later at Boston University itself. Before joining the Mexican government in the early 1990s, Levy spent some time doing research on
poverty and NAFTA at the World Bank. José Gómez de León, had a doctorate in demography and worked as an academic at El Colegio de México for several years. Nora
Lustig, who has a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of California, Berkeley, had also been an academic at El Colegio de México before joining the Brookings Institution
in 1989; from Brookings she joined the IDB in 1997. Miguel Székely has a Ph.D. from Oxford University and worked in the research department at the IDB. Zedillo first met Levy and Gómez de León when he was in the research department at the Bank of Mexico in the late 1970s (and perhaps even earlier). Lustig met Zedillo, Gómez de León,
Levy and Székely when she was at El Colegio de México in the 1970s and 1980s.

In the end, these are fascinating insights into the relationships and links inside a large programme and large and powerful organisations such as the World Bank Group. Her main conclusions (p.12) are interesting, although I do not think she addressed all the key points:

Scholars-practitioners are more likely to emphasize data gathering and evaluation exercises and build them into the initial design of an intervention to be able to demonstrate success (or failure) and make changes to improve the policy’s impact. In addition, scholars-practitioners are more likely to share data and results from evaluation exercises widely, through both mass and technical media, a process that is essential to build political/intellectual constituencies. Finally, scholars-practitioners can play a major role in spreading knowledge about successful interventions in multilateral institutions and public policy programs.
I think that the case study is an important look behind the 'curtain' that usually hides the front stage of development policy-making from backstage activities. Scholar-practitioners are important, but in addition to their scholarly skills, personal networks, relationships and academic socialistion matter - not a big surprise, but always fascinating to learn about it from a 'real world' example. In Nora Lustig words from a recent blog post on her paper:  
We’re in the business of ideas and that sometimes leads us to overlook the crucial question of the “who” in the policy process.
 P.S.: For further reading I suggest the relationships work that Rosalind Eyben from IDS has been doing and writing on and that is summarised here.


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