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Rethinking development policy and practice for those left most behind

28 Feb 2023
A female student at a primary school in Kundunali in Tamale in the Northern Region of Ghana on 11 Nov 2015.

I recently had the privilege of visiting Northern Ghana to participate in the implementation of a study to assess the long-term impacts of the LEAP 1000 programme. LEAP 1000 is a cash plus intervention which provides cash and health insurance coverage for pregnant or lactating women with children up to 15 months. The study implementation involved training and data collection from beneficiary and non-beneficiary households, seven years after the commencement of the LEAP 1000 pilot intervention. The pilot programme, which was evaluated by the Transfer Project between 2015 and 2017, reported modest impacts on key household and child level indicators including food consumption, food security, economic productivity, and children’s material wellbeing. There were no impacts on child nutrition outcomes, adding to the growing body evidence on the limitations of cash transfer as a silver bullet to address children malnutrition challenges.

The primary focus of the current study is to assess the longer-term impact of the LEAP 1000 on child labour and examine the educational and health trajectories of children that were engaged in child labour in the period between 2015 and 2017. The study will also look at other outcomes including asset accumulation, human capital accumulation, housing conditions, productive activities, and resilience to shocks. The study is funded by the United States Department of Labor (USDoL), led by the UNICEF Innocenti – Global Office of Research and Foresight, and implemented with researchers from ISSER.

Being my first field visit anywhere in 3 years, I was excited to go back to localities that I had been to many times before. The mission was overall successful, and after observing a number of interview sessions, I returned from the mission with four reflections:

  1. Interviews and surveys place a large burden on respondents and researchers need to do everything to minimize this burden as much as possible. A paper on Monitoring and reducing respondent burden of statistical surveys outlines the four factors that constitute perceived respondent burden, including: frequency of contact, length of contact, required respondent effort, and stress of disturbing questions. It also proposes some of the innovative approaches to try and reduce respondent burden by combining surveys within and among agencies, building frameworks for improved data sharing, sample overlap controls, and improved use of modelling and estimation techniques. High respondent burden is not only bad for the respondents, but it also has huge implications for data quality through recall bias, social desirability bias and outright misrepresentation to avoid further questions.
  2. Without a deep understanding of context, policies and programmes that may have worked elsewhere will be ineffective or inefficient at best, or summarily fail. Visiting the communities and people we seek to impact with our research, policy, or programmes is a must for any persons involved with development. Otherwise, there is bound to be a huge disconnect between theories and realities with non-trivial consequences on effectiveness and efficiency. Putting faces to some of the abstract indicators and interacting with local actors doing their level best against several constraints, was re-energizing. Seeing the physical context where the elegant theoretical and conceptual frameworks of development are expected to be operationalized is always enlightening. The visit was also another reminder of the daunting task the global community faces in the effort to sustainably lift millions of people out of poverty in all its forms.
  3. Doing more for those most left behind is not only morally imperative, but economically justifiable. From playing cards to making articulated trucks from discarded metal cans, and talking about social issues, I was impressed by the talent and creativity of the children I interacted with in these communities. They demonstrated high levels of intellectual ability that I believe can be competitive anywhere in the world if they have comparable opportunities and exposure to develop the talents. Having grown up in a somewhat similar environment, I can easily point to several incredible talents that were never fully developed primarily due  to household financial constraints. The public returns to many low-cost interventions in education and health can be huge, as this blog highlights in the case of Burundi. Leaving no one behind requires equity-informed public policies to ensure a level playing field for every child, regardless of the disadvantages imposed by the conditions at birth.
  4. A fragmented space of diverse development actors creates duplication and redundancy, and promotes competition in areas where cooperation would lead to better outcomes. Transformative changes are more likely to be achieved with transformative policies and programmes underpinned by strong and sustainable systems. Looking at the current state of people’s welfare and reflecting on the numerous governmental and non-governmental development interventions and investments made in Northern Ghana in the past three decades, it was hard to imagine not having any of these interventions over the years. How much ‘good’ has been achieved with all the interventions, and could the same resources be used in a different way to achieve greater ‘good’? There are obviously no easy answers to these questions, and ‘good’ will be interpreted differently by different people. Nonetheless, there is undoubtedly more to gain when policies and programmes are more integrated rather than the contemporary fragmented and less coordinated interventions from diverse development players. I have personally been involved in the impact evaluations of at least five development interventions in Northern Ghana, and I can see how these interventions could benefit from synergies and ultimately be more impactful than the sum of impacts (if any) achieved by each programme separately. As the global economy faces severe uncertainties, and as most governments in the developing world continue to grapple with a looming debt crisis, finding more efficient and effective ways to development is critical. More multi-donor trust funds and partnerships will be valuable in this regard.

    Millions of people around the world continue to live in poverty through no fault of their own, and the global development architecture will not be able to achieve the objectives of the SDGs unless there is renewed effort to achieve more coherence and integration in development policy and practice, a better understanding of local contexts, and a focus on equity to ensure that no one is left behind.




    Acknowledgment and Disclaimer

    Funding for the study, including the mission is provided by the United States Department of Labor under cooperative agreement number IL2669414-75-K-36. One hundred percentage of the total costs of the project or program is financed with USG federal funds, for a total of US$1,730,500 dollars. This material does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the United States Department of Labor, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the United States Government.