25 September 2012

Lib Dems 4 Dev!

The Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems) are holding their annual party conference in Brighton this year.

The Lib Dems are a centre left party who have formed a Government in coalition with the bigger, right of centre, Conservative Party (together, The Coalition). 

For the first time in living memory the Lib Dems have real power but they have paid a high price for it in the polls with one count putting them fourth behind the UK Independence Party. 

Languishing in the polls they may be, but they do look to be becoming more influential in UK international development policy. 

They already count among their numbers the highly regarded Sir Malcolm Bruce, chair of the powerful Select Committee of MPs on International Development.  Tim Farron MP, a rising star, is no slouch on development, Baroness Lindsay Northover is a DFID minister in the House of Lords, and now the party have Lynne Featherstone as a new DFID minister.  Michael Moore knows a thing or two about international development and then we have Lord Paddy Ashdown chair of 2011's well respected Humanitarian and Emergency Review (HERR).  The Lib Dems already hold the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Ed Davey) and have Vince Cable in reserve (he was an ODI Fellow in Kenya).

What might they do with this collective influence? 

They will no doubt get more of the Lib Dem agenda into DFID, but what does that look like?  The safe bets are on traditional Lib Dem issues such as the environment and transparency/accountability, and Lynne Featherstone will bring a new energy to efforts to reduce gender based violence and to eradicate discrimination based on sexual orientation.

It is good to have this development challenge from within the Coalition--it has been missing.

Perhaps they could get Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg more interested in international development--it might even help to detoxify his current brand.

24 September 2012

Brighton Calling. Why Study at IDS?

Today I welcomed our new students to IDS.

One of the things that makes IDS different is our teaching programme--we have 120 Masters students and 70 PhD's on the books at any given time.  They come from about 50 different countries around the world.

These folks will receive University of Sussex degrees, but be largely taught by IDS staff.  One of the criteria for student selection is whether the candidates have nonacademic experience--have they worked in the real world?  Most of them have and they bring with them a tremendous amount of energy, experience and tough questions about development. 

We like to think they get a very different experience at IDS--a place where research, policy and practice come together. We treat them as Members of IDS, which means we try hard to integrate them into, for example, the research teams, annual reviews, Board meetings, and research projects -- into the very life of the Institute.  

What do they think?  We take student feedback seriously and we use student feedback scores in performance appraisals for Fellows and we report feedback scores in summary form to our Board.  

But if you want to know what 2 of our students from last year think about IDS (and one of them is in the above picture) then watch this video

I saw it yesterday for the first time (Directors are always the last to know) and was pleased with the results. 

My only criticism was that there was no driving Clash soundtrack.

20 September 2012

When Worlds Collide: Trying to work across the health-development divide

Today we held the concluding workshop of a project between IDS, the London International Development Centre (LIDC) and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (working title: When Worlds Collide).

Four papers—each with some variant of systematic review--were presented on the following questions:

(1) To reduce malarial infections should we be investing more in malaria-preventing development (e.g. building prevention into the design of shelter) or in malaria control (e.g. drugs, insecticides). In an era of pressure on aid flows and when resistance to malarial insecticides and drugs are increasing, the paper concludes that we should be spending more on malaria-preventing development. This paper used systematic review processes and non-systematic review approaches to find its evidence.

(2) Why do some institutional arrangements seem to offer better quality of health (and other) services to low income populations? The paper found that directing resources (whether private or public) to institutions as opposed to individuals improves quality because institutions can signal quality more clearly, are less fly by night, and have stronger incentives for repeat transactions.

(3) Does agriculture-driven food price policy affect undernutrition and diet related chronic disease? Out of hundreds of studies found through online and bibliographic searches, we only found 4 studies that linked agriculture-driven food price policy with nutrition status. The direction of impact were as predicted—higher food prices increased undernutrition and lower food prices led to increased overweight and obesity. The surprising result was the lack of evidence (and we included ex-ante modelling studies and ex post evaluation studies) on the direct link between agricultural driven food price policy and nutrition status.

(4) Do systematic reviews miss multiple effects of interventions? Here the paper was a re-review of an existing systematic review looking at the impact of water, sanitation and hygiene interventions on diarrhoea rates. It found that a high proportion of the studies in the original systematic review contained impacts on other outcomes, sometimes of direct relevance to the interpretation of the diarrhoea outcomes.

The original plan was for the 4 papers—supported by DFID—to come out simultaneously in the Lancet and World Development. In retrospect, this was a ridiculously unrealistic goal. Richard Horton the Editor of the Lancet, and one of the panellists at the workshop, dubbed the project a “glorious failure”. That’s a bit unfair, but not much.

Why failure?

It was a failure in the sense that we could not successfully apply systematic reviews to the really big cross-sectoral questions (the questions just could not be framed specifically enough). We also failed in our quixotic attempt to get the 4 papers published as a set simultaneously in the two journals (although one is with the Lancet, one with World Development, and the other 2 are about to be submitted to 2 different journals).

Why glorious?

Perhaps because those involved in the project learnt a lot and can share a lot. What did we experience?

• We have very different languages (and we were folks generally used to working across disciplinary boundaries). “You say consumption (diet) and I say consumption (expenditure)--let’s call the whole thing off.”

• The development and health journals are not set up to evaluate transboundary research (one journal editor said “there aren’t enough interdisciplinary reviewers”)

• UK universities are facing incentives such as the Research Excellence Framework which tend to place a premium on single disciplines

• The nature of credible evidence to each community is very different—health colleagues tend to be more enamoured with randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and classical systematic reviews, while the development colleagues tend to not worry so much about comprehensiveness and systematic inclusion but more about understanding external validity (context, nuance, formative research)

• Research funders know that they provide important incentives to researchers, and they do not seem as bound by disciplines and sectors as other research actors

• Those in civil society are probably scratching their head about all this as they tend to be eclectic users of evidence in any case

We also felt that there are not many champions for this kind of work. This is a pity and is perhaps an ethical challenge. Many if not most of the policy questions of the next decade will respect no boundaries—how will we get anything but fragments of answers to them? How to create champions? New multidisciplinary MA programmes are surely part of the answer.

Unfortunately the 4 papers are not available for wide sharing just yet, but if you want to find out more contact Lucy Tusting (LSHTM) for the malaria paper, David Leonard (IDS) on institutions, Alan Dangour (LSHTM) on agriculture and Michael Loevinsohn IDS) on water, sanitation and hygiene.

07 September 2012

New Lancet Series on Malnutrition Scheduled for May 2013

Back in 2008, the journal the Lancet published 5 papers on undernutrition: exposures, levels and trends, consequences (health and other human capital), what works, and what to do to accelerate undernutrition reduction at the national and international levels.

It’s fair to say that this series, together with the food price crisis of 2008, played a key role in pushing nutrition higher up the development agenda. Today, over 30 countries have joined the Scaling Up Nutrition movement.

Earlier this week I was at a kick-off meeting for the follow up series of papers, hosted by the series lead, Prof. Bob Black at Johns Hopkins University’s School of International Health. This series will comprise 4 papers, and is set to analyse, among other things: (a) what has been learned in and from the past 5 years, (b) what has changed in the external environment, (c) what are the set of challenges that different actors need to focus on in the next 5 years, and (d) how to lock in the commitment to nutrition for the medium term.

The series will retain the focus on undernutrition, but will give more attention to obesity and healthy diets. It will also focus more on the indirect or potentially nutrition sensitive policies and programmes in areas such as food and agriculture, social protection, women’s empowerment, water and sanitation, and early childhood development/education. The series will have more of a political economy focus, with paper 4 (the one I am working on) focusing on what an enabling environment for nutrition looks like and how it can be created and sustained.

The timeline is extremely challenging—we want to publish the papers by the May 2013 G8 in London. The series will have a website where ideas and materials can be posted by the wider community for the 20 or so authors to take into consideration as they write their papers. When we get the website address I will be sure to share.