Strategic communication

The Nobel and poverty alleviation: ‘A slow deliberative process of discovery – no miracle cure’

By 21/10/2019

“A slow deliberative process of discovery – no miracle cure”
Esther Duflo – winner of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Science in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2019

Congratulations to Esther Duflo, Abhijit Banerjee and Michael Kremer on being recognised as Nobel Laureates for their more than a quarter of a century’s work in showing how randomised evaluations (randomised control trials) can help to alleviate poverty.

It is great to see that the importance of research has been recognised through this award. Kremer et al have demonstrated how this kind of detailed evidence can help in changing development economics in a very real way.

Writing as the Comms Director of an international policy research think tank – just coming up to our fiftieth birthday – many of the things they have talked about resonate closely with our experience in tackling the poverty alleviation challenge.

While the kind of research that we do in IIED does not focus on randomised control trials – we are mainly social scientists – this unusual recognition has caused me to pause for a moment and think about how our process of building an enabling environment, developing a co-produced research agenda, communicating to get our research into use, outcome mapping to monitor its effect, and using the learning to take to scale also mirrors the fact there is no miracle cure and that identifying the right solutions is indeed a slow deliberate process of discovery.

The need for context, the fact that one-size does not fit all, and the essential nature of detailed and deliberate communication and engagement is all part of this continual process of investigation.

IIED’s particular way of working – rooted in close in-country partnerships – has been to prioritise action research on development issues leading to policy change or policy implementation. The close partnership with different stakeholders – communities, practitioners, academics, government institutions, and the private sector – have ensured contextual relevance and rooted our priorities in the particular needs of the poorest people.

Duflo and Banerjee have worked together for many years, committed to making sure the challenges of poor communities do not become a cliche. Duflo’s Ted Talk reiterates the importance of identifying the right problem. She provides a reminder for us to battle against our assumptions and best guesses and eliminate those things that, although part of the problem, are not in themselves the answer to making the biggest impact and creating the possibility of taking solutions to scale.  She nicely demonstrates how getting this right means we can really get change as well as value for money.

Our work in IIED has been to listen closely to the voices, experience, and understanding of communities and take those voices to the international community for new solutions – even if these challenge the conventional wisdom.  We have pushed hard to build research agendas that will provide the evidence to address these real needs.

Our particular experience in IIED over the last 50 years is of Knowledge, Actors, Spaces, and making sure we convene dialogues that enable on-the-ground realities to surface has allowed us to combine traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge to inform a collective approach to the complex challenges the global community faces.

Kremer’s comments connecting their research to the policy environment also hold true for us.  Evidence is not enough on its own to make change happen. We prioritise making sure that we communicate our material in the right ways for a policy audience – short, evidence based, with clear recommendations and contextual examples.

We are careful to be responding to demand, to be engaging when the issue is relevant and results are sought after, but even then the challenges Kremer outlines reflect that the journey to change is long and arduous. He does show however that strong examples of where things work can speed the process. We too believe that sharing examples, through case studies of what has worked, is very helpful.

What evidence is useful and when is it needed? IIED’s long-term partnerships and ‘strategic patience’ (an institutional friend’s perspective) have strengthened our ability to identify relevant challenges. Partnerships take years to develop, maintain, and nurture – it is good see that Kremer, Banerjee, and Duflo have had similar experience of working alongside institutions and NGOs for a number of years.

In IIED we set great store by learning from project work.  We have a learning and impact framework closely linked to institutional and group theories of change, which pushes us hard to questions power dynamics, to think carefully about how and with who we need to engage. We carry out outcome harvesting and mapping to track our results and feed this learning back into the next phase of a project.

As a communications team trying to get our research into the right places so that it can be used to inform action on the ground, we think carefully about how we share information at different times, recognising that research findings often emerge late in the game for our kind of work. We work with our research teams to produce outputs from a portfolio of products, helping to deliver different messages at different stages of the research cycle (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: A typical research cycle (credit: IIED Comms)

Sometimes the long slow nature of this deliberative process of discovery can lead to self-doubt and an impatience for change, so it is good to see this kind of work being acknowledged and celebrated by this prestigious award. We offer our hearty congratulations to Banerjee and Duflo and their colleague Kremer not only for their outstanding work but for the motivation and inspiration we have felt at their winning this Nobel Laureate.