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A $3 million book with 8 readers? The impact of donor-driven research

One of aid donors’ less discussed activities is financing research. The Global Development Network (GDN) is probably the best known effort, a World Bank-sponsored effort to promote development research by researchers in the developing world, founded in December 1999, with an annual budget now of over $9 million (roughly the same as the entire annual budget for all National Science Foundation (NSF) funding of all economics research). In GDN’s own words, it exists to “promote research excellence in developing countries.” It has attracted contributions also from many bilateral aid agencies and from the Gates Foundation. (Meanwhile, scholarship programs for Africans and individuals from other under-represented regions to achieve their own academic success are chronically under-funded.)

How excellent is GDN research? It is difficult to measure, but there are two common measures of research quality in academia (which affect big things like tenure decisions, as in “publish or perish”): publication in peer-reviewed journals and citations by other publications. Because it takes a while to accumulate citations and publications, we thought we would look at papers and books produced in the early years of the GDN and see what happened with subsequent publications and citations.

Surprisingly, GDN was unable to provide us with a list of publications that had resulted from GDN-sponsored research, nor did any of several outside evaluations put together such a list. So we unleashed Aid Watch’s crack one-woman investigative team, who assembled the record on publications and citations from two types of GDN outputs: (1) the GDN’s first Global Research Project “Explaining Growth”, and (2) papers that won Global Development Awards & Medals Competitions from GDN during the three years 2000-2002.

The Explaining Growth project involved over 200 researchers from 2000 to 2005. Its 2002-2003 budget was $3 million. The publications from this project are a direct measure of GDN impact in this effort, since these publications would not have happened otherwise. The main publication was the 2003 book, also called Explaining Growth, which as of June 14, 2009 in Google Scholar had gotten 8 citations. There were other later books on explaining growth in the Commonwealth of Independent States (6 citations), Latin America (5 citations), South Asia (6 citations), and the Middle East (1 citation) – curiously, there was no book on Africa. The editors of these volumes typically had distinguished academic careers outside of GDN, with many more citations for their personal publications.

There were 51 papers that won Global Development Awards & Medals from 2000-2002, resulting from a competition involving $1 million and about 2000 researchers. We chose to focus on these to make the number of publications manageable to follow, and to focus on the “cream of the crop.” This procedure is biased towards finding the highest quality publications. It also establishes only an upper bound on the GDN impact from this set of papers, since journal publication may have happened anyway. We tracked all 51 papers and found that they resulted in 5 tenure-quality journal publications (publication in a top general interest journal or field journal). Four of the five publications were by Latin American economists, a group that had already achieved plenty of academic success before GDN came along.

Why was there so little academic success that seemed to result from GDN efforts? Perhaps a decision taken early on was partly to blame. As a 2004 World Bank evaluation put it:

One model was to promote open competition among various institutions, with funding going to the most qualified institutions that had submitted research proposals. A second model centered on pre-selected institutions within regions, which would serve as regional hubs and nominate members to the board. The second model prevailed.

Translation: they had to decide on competition by merit vs. research bureaucracy and they chose bureaucracy. As the GDN results illustrate, academic research cannot be planned by bureaucrats.

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  1. Bill, we faced the same when we did the Development Marketplace in 2000. Thank heavens we chose the open-access model where almost anyone could participate, even though we faced fierce resistance and skepticism. Many if not most of the best ideas came from outside the “usual suspects.”

    Posted June 15, 2009 at 9:46 am | Permalink
  2. Joan McKniff wrote:

    i distrust almost anything that goes on about a model or a development model. how many more studies can we possibly pretend to need, especially for an audience of? better to fund dev economists to plan and conduct in their own countries and then have results reviewed by participants, intended beneficiaries, local journalist and a couple of objective experts from one or two developing countries, with at least one from grass roots level.

    Posted June 15, 2009 at 10:32 am | Permalink
  3. Adam Jackson wrote:

    Yeah, that’s pretty embarrassing.

    Posted June 15, 2009 at 1:37 pm | Permalink
  4. Ya, so shocked I almost fell out of my chair (not). There’s rioting in Kathmandu today and yesterday. Poverty and poor education are the true cause of that and not whatever petty event took place to spark it. Too bad that $9 million didn’t go to on the ground development like education, job creation or something more worthwhile. I can explain growth for under $1.00. Stable government, jobs or money to open a small business, good education and human rights, especially for women. Do those things you get growth, don’t and you won’t. Please send $1.00 to The Mountain Fund, thank you. I do find both the Impact Assessment lessons learned that GDN notes on their site as interesting if not humorous; no sorry I meant to say pathetic. A million here, a million there and pretty soon it adds up to real money. Meanwhile I could have built and staffed 300 schools in Nepal for three years with that amount. Ke Garne? (Nepali for “what to do”)

    Posted June 15, 2009 at 5:32 pm | Permalink
  5. Off topic wrote:

    Off topic:

    “Bill Gates helps fund mass circumcision programme”

    Is this aid, development or something else entirely?

    Source – New Scientist:

    Posted June 16, 2009 at 4:20 am | Permalink
  6. Scott MacLennan wrote:

    Re: off topic. Is that what you call cutting to the chase? Is Bono helping? Or should we just take a cue from one of his songs; What more in the name of love !

    Posted June 17, 2009 at 9:29 pm | Permalink
  7. Off topic wrote:

    Scott thanks for the quips – aid cuts etc.

    But it was a serious question. I wonder if Prof Easterley would be willing to comment on how he would classify it. Is it a new form of Development? Are there any similar examples? It’s not medically curative for example.

    The role of circumcision in HIV prevention does appear to still have controversial elements in terms of efficacy and is reputedly not fully evidence-based. There are still arguments about how the data from different countries is normalised for prosititution rates etc.

    The older thing about circumcision and the prevention of cervical cancer has now been linked to HPVirus. There are now immunisation schemes here in the UK for school girls (which has itself been controversial in some circles.) I think there would have been an outcry if they’d opted for mass circumcision. But I can see the difference between a cut to save your life and a cut to save others.

    However, from some posts around the Gates approach, it seems that locals are queuing up for the snip perhaps in the mistaken view that it will totally prevent transmission of HIV. This could lead to the usual unintended consequences. Plus ca change…

    Posted June 20, 2009 at 9:35 am | Permalink
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    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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