J-PAL’s Global Executive Director Iqbal Dhaliwal writes about the advantages of working with government.
We live in exciting times. Private companies are putting satellites in space, producing global currencies such as Bitcoin, and using blockchain to make land records tamper-proof — all services once thought to be the sole purview of government. So, it is only natural for philanthropists to similarly consider bypassing governments in their efforts to fight poverty. After all, so many government agencies worldwide seem incompetent, corrupt, or slow to innovate.
But if my own career — which began 24 years ago working in the Indian government implementing development programs in the field — has taught me anything, it is that partnerships with governments offer undeniable advantages.
I am currently the Global Executive Director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), an evidence to policy (E2P) organization at MIT, where I work closely with philanthropists, foundations, non-profits, and governments to apply scientific evidence to social policy. This journey has convinced me that: (a) while the role of the government is indeed evolving, it will continue to be the preeminent player in global poverty, development, and environment issues for years to come, and (b) relatively small investments of philanthropic dollars can drive outsized, lasting, and rapid impact through smart, nimble collaborations with governments and E2P organizations.
For example, programs evaluated by J-PAL researchers and then scaled up have, over the last 20 years, reached 400 million people, 340 million of them through “smart” partnerships with governments.
Yes, governments everywhere, including in many “advanced” economies, can be incompetent. Decisions are often driven not by objectivity, data, or evidence, but by ideology, instincts, and politics. The urgency of social problems can get mired in bureaucratic red tape.
So why am I suggesting that philanthropists spend dollars, time, and effort to support collaborations with governments and E2P organizations?
Governments have unrivaled responsibility, scale, and access.
Responsibility for social services: Ultimately, governments are the ones held responsible for guaranteeing the availability of public services such as healthcare and education. So despite their drawbacks, or how competent the private sector becomes, governments will continue to be the biggest players to ensure equitable services for all.
Scale: Governments offer incredible potential for reaching people at scale — even the largest NGOs operate at a much smaller scale than governments in terms of both budgets and people reached.
In fact, some of the most successful NGOs reached scale by partnering with governments after demonstrating the success of their model. For example, Pratham, a J-PAL partner and one of the largest education NGOs in India, increased its reach massively by expanding its Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) program to government schools after successfully piloting the program in their own schools.
Access: Governments have monopolies in sectors such as land, property, and identity records that are essential to obtaining credit, preventing crime, managing migration, and issuing identification. Each of these is becoming an even more critical part of the development equation. Indeed, many governments around the world are creating some version of unique biometric-based digital identifiers. Access to these identifiers will
be an essential component of some of the most promising development innovations to help people living in poverty.
So how do we create smart partnerships that are mutually beneficial and can maximize impact?
A decade ago, I joined J-PAL to help found a dedicated policy group to engage more systematically with governments. This required a shift in the way J-PAL worked — until then, J-PAL worked primarily with NGOs. To work with governments, we first needed to share results more quickly to accommodate policymakers’ timeframes and create a suite of publications that was far more accessible than academic journals and that synthesized lessons from multiple studies. We also needed to raise funding for initiatives to leverage policy windows to catalyze scale-ups and research, hire specialized non-research staff in the field to stay updated about local policy priorities, build partnerships with governments that go beyond individual champions who can be transferred, and provide technical assistance to governments on evidence and scale.
Many successful, and even more failed, efforts later, perhaps the single most important lesson I have to share with you is that the key to leveraging the power of governments is to work with them in a way that gives them time, talent, and resources, rather than take or divert these away from them. This is a fundamental shift in the way many philanthropists and researchers currently collaborate with governments.
Here are a few examples:
Globally informed, locally grounded: Rather than asking governments to invest in predetermined
programs that add to their work, engage with E2P organizations that map policymakers’ existing priorities with rigorous global research on what works and an analysis of what this suggests given local contexts. For instance, J-PAL South Asia’s partnership with the government of the state of Tamil Nadu in India began with dialogs that included heads of key government departments sharing priorities. Based on this information, our staff shortlisted eight interventions for piloting and evaluation based on our understanding of cutting-edge global research.
Earmarking funds to leverage historic policy windows: Predictable and easily accessible funds can go a long way by leveraging a policy window. For example, J-PAL’s Innovation in Government Initiative (IGI) provided US$ 250,000 to support the Zambian Ministry of Education in designing and piloting a remedial education program based on Pratham’s TaRL methodology. Momentum from its success led to a USAID grant, and it was scaled to 1,800 schools. Evidence sharing led to further expansion, with governments in Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria launching TaRL pilots adapted to their local contexts. Co-Impact, a global philanthropic collaborative supported by Richard Chandler, Bill and Melinda Gates, Jeff Skoll, The Rockefeller Foundation, and Rohini and Nandan Nilekani recently announced a commitment of US$ 30m to J-PAL Africa for TaRL scale-ups across the continent to support the education of three million children over five years.
Investing in government’s capacity-building: We can seed an evidence-based culture within governments that supports data-driven decision-making as a default rather than an exception. For example, with technical input from J-PAL South Asia, the aforementioned state of Tamil Nadu in India formed a Data Analytics Unit to support the analysis and use of administrative data for effective decision-making and issued guidelines for designing and using evaluations in policymaking.
Harnessing the power of big data: Around the world, vast amounts of data are now being digitally collected and stored. This creates tremendous opportunities, as time-consuming and expensive surveys can be replaced by existing administrative data sets, which often cover entire cities, states, or even countries. We can support efforts to improve decision-making in real time by expanding governments’ abilities to harness this data and creatively use artificial intelligence. J-PAL’s Innovations in Data and Experiments for Action Initiative (IDEA) is working with governments to use administrative data and machine learning to improve a range of government programs. These include reducing leakages in the distribution of subsidized food, decreasing tax fraud to increase revenue available for development, and even matching missing people to unidentified bodies to provide much-needed closure to families.
Governments appreciate philanthropic partnerships that bring additional resources, technical skills, speed, flexibility, and global knowledge beyond the local context. Additionally, philanthropic dollars go much further if they leverage existing government infrastructure and programs at scale.
At the heart of these partnerships are commitments by governments to use evidence from philanthropists and foundations to earmark predictable funds for evidence-policy partnerships, and by E2P organizations such as J-PAL to provide global knowledge and local staff in an effort to build better, smarter, more impactful, and more innovative government partnerships.
Private companies can provide some public goods. With foresight and resources, however, private space missions, cryptocurrencies, and blockchain land records can coexist and complement governments that are enacting data-driven and impactful policies.