News & CommentaryArchive
Oct 29, 2010
Eyes and Mouths Wide Shut?
One of the reasons we started Philanthropy Action was the belief that there was too little good information available to people and institutions who wanted to make the world a better place. If good information is not available, then no one can make the best possible decisions about where to invest. That’s why we’re such outspoken supporters of high quality evaluations of any project—and such outspoken critics of poor or altogether lacking evaluation. Of course, in this messy world we live in, conclusive evaluations are hard and expensive to do. There are reasonable trade-offs to be made between time, cost, and absolute rigor.
In recent days we’ve been following the back and forth on just this issue over one of the highest profile aid/philanthropy projects in the world today: the Millennium Villages Project. Given the ambitions of the MVP, insiders and critics alike have agreed about the importance of evaluation. But that’s been the only point of agreement. The plans for evaluation have been the subject of much discussion, at least among development and evaluation wonks. For a quick primer, read this and this by Chris Blattman. There’s plenty of other discussion on this topic from a variety of sources.
The discussion has heated up this month because of a paper by Michael Clemens of CGD and Gabriel Demombynes of the World Bank. Clemens and Demombynes discuss why they believe the current evaluation plans for the MVP are inadequate and propose a way of adding significant rigor to the evaluation at low cost. A few weeks after the paper was released, the MVP responded on its blog defending its evaluation protocols and the goals of the project. Clemens and Demombynes responded on the World Bank’s Africa Can…End Poverty blog. Chris Blattman weighed in again as well with some thoughts on other ways of usefully evaluating the MVP. That’s when things started getting strange.
As Laura Freschi points out in a post on AidWatch that critiques MVP’s response, there was a seminar scheduled by the World Bank for Jeff Sachs and his team to engage in a public conversation (streamed live on the Web) about evaluation with Clemens and Demombynes on October 27th. A few days before the seminar though, it was “rescheduled.“ Given the demands on the time of the people involved, that’s not surprising.
But I’ve now heard from sources at the Bank that there was no scheduling conflict. My sources told me that the MVP team demanded that the public discussion be canceled, while a private meeting with the same participants, in the same time-slot was held instead. I’m also told that the cancellation of the public discussion was accomplished by going over the heads of the original planners, and while I have no way of verifying that this is true, it’s certainly disturbing. The fact that none of the people I spoke to were willing to go on the record for fear of falling afoul of the wrong people is also very concerning.
So why wasn’t the discussion public? I admit to being a little baffled. I can’t imagine why someone would make up the stories I’ve been told, nor can I imagine a good reason why the MVP would use its clout to close down public discussion on such an important issue.
I certainly hope the cancellation of the public discussion was truly a “rescheduling” and not because MVP pressured the Bank to keep such an important discussion out of public view. Regardless of the reasons for the original discussion not being public, there is no good reason that a follow-up public discussion should not happen. The entire development and philanthropy community, and the MVP, can only benefit from an open and honest conversation about how to best evaluate the MVP. This is not just an esoteric discussion. Tens of millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives, at the very least, are going to be directly affected by the evaluation of the MVP. Ensuring that we have the best possible evaluation within reasonable constraints should be a priority for everyone. I don’t know whether Clemens or Demombynes have cracked the code or whether the MVP’s protocols are sufficient—that’s why I want to see and hear the discussion and debate.
To encourage all the parties to come to the table and have that public discussion, I’ve launched a petition on Tumblr here. It simply asks CGD, the World Bank and the MVP to have the open public discussion that was promised. If you agree that such a public discussion would benefit the whole sector, please sign on and encourage friends and colleagues to do the same. You can sign the petition by visiting the Tumblr site and leaving a comment. You can also submit a post to the Tumblr by clicking on the submit button if you’d like to elaborate on your thoughts.
UPDATE: People seem to be having trouble with the Tumblr comments and/or submissions. So feel free to add your name in the comments here (via the comment button below) and I’ll add them to the list of supporters. Thanks.