Success of a socio-economic initiative, whether it is aimed at poverty reduction, providing health and education facilities, improvement in lifestyle of citizens, empowerment of marginalised sectors of the society or giving livelihood to the unemployed, depends primarily on the quality and relevance of the policymaking exercise by experts. A haphazardly introduced project, launched without conducting preliminary surveys and studies into the needs and challenges of the targeted population, has little chances of success and is likely to be abandoned midway. So, it is always advised to be well-prepared and clear about what you want to achieve and how to achieve it.
Technically, this phenomenon is called evidence-based planning for economic and social development. Under this phenomenon, the needs and challenges are identified scientifically and the project designed in a way to address each of them effectively. Unfortunately, in Pakistan the culture of evidence-based planning has not developed to the desired level and a large number of policymakers are designing projects around estimations, speculations and assumptions. Besides, the huge amounts, resources and expertise required for evidence-based planning are a deterrent in a system where the ruling elite wants to invest in projects which are tangible and win them political mileage.
On the contrary, the subject of data sciences is becoming popular around the world and specialists in this field are being hired by research organisations, governments, donors, academic institutions, development sector organisations and others. So, it becomes highly imperative for countries like Pakistan to set up a system which promotes data collection, its free dissemination and its analysis during formation of welfare and development projects.
So what are the problems which are keeping the country away from evidence-based planning? A development sector expert, Dr Saba Gul Khattak, who is the executive director of Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) has tried to answer this question in her research paper titled “Research in difficult settings: Reflections on Pakistan.”
In this paper, she establishes that the three stakeholders of development research in Pakistan — government, non-government research institutes, and donors — face a variety of challenges. Governments are overwhelmed by constant crisis and violence and non-government research institutes lack staff capacity, endowments/institutional support and often ‘forget’ their original mandate. The donors, she adds, need to show tangible results to taxpayers at home, therefore, they fund projects that can demonstrate a success story.
She explains that the donors’ ability to access difficult areas constrains them from funding researchers and survey teams in high-risk settings as monitoring is impossible. These issues prevent the emergence of theoretically relevant research that can impact development policy formulation in developing countries.
In this scenario, it is a fact that the quality of scientific research and data collection for development planning has suffered in Pakistan. One big proof of this neglect is that the country has not even conducted its census after 1998. The question is that can a country plan well without having access to updated population figures, its composition, its geographical distribution and so on. Even in the 21st century hundreds of thousands of childbirths go unregistered, especially in rural areas, which keeps this population off government records and public policies.
Fortunately, some research studies supported by international organisations and donors have been a saving grace in this regard. A recent example where a global donor and its local partner took an initiative to promote the culture of research was the First International Conference on Research and Learning held in Islamabad earlier this year.
The conference convened by Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Program (PPAF) shared the findings of various research studies conducted in close collaboration with the World Bank’s Development Economics Research Group (DECRG) over the past few years. These studies assessed and evaluated the benefits of various community-driven development programme components implemented by the fund.
PPAF’s Compliance and Quality Assurance Group Head, Samia Liaquat Ali Khan, says the fund felt that there was a widening gap between development and research that needed to be bridged. Besides, she says, there was a need to put effort into finding out the changing circumstances on the ground and to identify the best strategies that can achieve the best result. This need was fulfilled by emphasising on action research conducted alongside project implementation which was deemed essential in terms of achieving the required outcomes and impacts.
Samia tells TNS that the best part of the conference was the sharing of the research findings with a larger audience. This was in great contrast to the traditional practice of keeping such findings in the closet and considering them unfit for public consumption.
“The PPAF felt that it was necessary to share the findings with a wider audience: first to enrich existing literature on development work within the country; second to use this platform in providing greater understanding and importance of research work in development sector; and third to share these findings with policy makers, civil society, academia and government officials,” she adds.
Irfan Ahmad, Director, Research Consultants (RCons), talks about the issues pertaining surveys at ground level. His company provides consultancy services in research, survey studies, impact assessment, evaluation, baseline studies and monitoring of development projects, to different organisations including the World Bank.
He tells TNS that the rural communities which would be skeptical about data collection exercise in the past are now comfortable with this. They have seen survey teams visiting them under the BISP programme and reaped the fruits as well in the form of cash grants. On the other hand, urban sample populations may be careful while divulging information such as that about their household incomes but this does not happen in every case. However, he says, the real test of a quality research consultant is to dispel such fears and make the respondents comfortable enough to provide exact answers to the questions they are asked. “What we do is that we get letters issued by concerned departments to assure people that the surveys are being conducted for their benefit,” he adds.
Irfan Mufti, Deputy Director, South Asia Partnership-Pakistan, cites an example of a government survey in which the total number of women farmers in Pakistan is stated to be around 176. This figure is quite contrary to the real figures keeping in view that 80 per cent of rural women work in the agriculture sector. How can a policy designed for 176 women cater to the needs of such a huge number of women farmers?
Samia Liaquat distances the research studies presented at the PPAF conference from the traditional ones. She says they were different from statistical and economic surveys in a way that these studies provided a detailed explanation as to why something happens and to what extent. “So these studies covered the factual and the normative side of each correlation, giving policy makers, academia and civil society a better idea of the situation.”
She tells TNS these studies can be very useful for the government as the findings explain various expenditure and consumption patterns of the households. For example, it was found that asset transfers alone result in increase in income, wealth and consumption, but it has no apparent effect on the health and education of the household. Hence such social safety nets should be given only if they are complemented with conditions laid down to improve the social aspects of a household. The government can make use of these findings to shape their future policies with the assurance that there would be positive outcomes, she concludes.