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“For 20 years I thought my job was as a basic scientist. Publish papers and throw them over the wall for someone else to apply. I now realize that there's no one on the other side of the wall. Just a huge pile of papers that we've all thrown over.”
Duncan Watts in a speech at IC2S2 2019

The goal in much, if not all, of development is to reduce poverty, or to empower people to pursue opportunities for a better life. But the means to this end are known to be manifold. One core component of the academic side of development is the study of large government and donor-led programs. But having produced the evidence, and having thrown it over the figurative wall that separates the worlds of research and policy, how does evidence translate into more effective global action? And how do we know how best to implement a program whose effectiveness has been extensively studied? The translation of evidence into policy is neither free nor simple, and often does not emerge spontaneously. In other words, how do you throw papers over the wall? And who picks them up on the other side? We must invest in the process of policy translation, and conduct primary research on the adoption and use of evidence, to figure out how to put that pile to better use.

Evidence to Policy Research Initiative

GPRL has since its inception been dedicated to ensuring that research findings are translated into scalable interventions and actionable policies. Through the Evidence to Policy Research Initiative (EPRI) and its focus on evidence use in policymaking, we further integrate this goal into every research effort at GPRL. This is in line with GPRL’s two-pronged approach to generate evidence that is not only scientifically rigorous, but policy relevant as well.
GPRL's general policy engagement strategy involves leveraging its partnerships with IPA's country offices to deepen relationships with local policymakers and involve them in the research production process. Through these partnerships, GPRL takes research findings to places where policy decisions are made and helps identify knowledge gaps that can spur further research. In addition, GPRL maintains close ties to bi- and multilateral agencies. The China cluster, for instance, regularly engages with Chinese government ministries, entrepreneurs, and companies, and collaborates with organizations throughout China on joint research projects. To disseminate research findings, GPRL organizes events that bring together researchers and local stakeholders and produces op-eds and synthesis publications for policy audiences. By employing these various strategies, GPRL maximizes the impact of its research on policy outcomes.
With EPRI, GPRL is taking its policy engagement strategy one step further. EPRI aims to conduct research and to host a research community around the study of the evidence-to-policy nexus. We are currently in the process of creating a database that will centralize evidence spanning all areas in international development, from entrepreneurship and labor markets, to health, education, agriculture, and migration. This involves coordinating a diverse set of stakeholders across the international development space and leading the core technical contribution. EPRI has also hosted multiple sessions of an interdisciplinary working group with scholars from economics, education, medicine, law, and anthropology, to foster cross-disciplinary dialogue around evidence in policymaking and to initiate collaborations. This working group may also serve as the convening stage for future workshops, seminars, and potential future funding calls.


GPRL and IPA provide faculty support with media outreach, op-eds, and synthesis publications for policy audiences. At the policymaker-researcher interface, we are partnering with Kellogg Insight to create a professionally produced podcast series that provides accessible narratives around frictions in the adoption of evidence for policy. The inaugural episode will discuss the challenges of implementing graduation-style interventions featuring perspectives from policymakers, researchers, beneficiaries. To disseminate our efforts, EPRI will pursue an active communications strategy, including social media engagement and traditional channels coordinated with other partners, such as Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research and IPA.

Policy Engagement

Planning for policy engagement ought to answer the question “Who needs to do what differently?” for research projects, forming a strategy, and leading implementation of policy engagement. To provide this support, GPRL leverages the partnership with IPA’s country offices that are focused on developing local relationships with key policymakers. Research is not merely presented after it is done, but rather policymakers are engaged throughout the research process, from design and question formulation through to results. Similarly, engagement with multilateral and bilateral agencies requires constant engagement, not merely when a particular study comes out.
GPRL regularly engages with government ministries, NGO’s, entrepreneurs, and companies, to both increase the impact of existing research, but also helps to identify key knowledge gaps that then motivates, and leads to funding for, further research. We also organize events that bring together researchers and local stakeholders to build local capacity and create awareness of the research and evidence generated.
An example of how this has all come together in an impactful way is research conducted by Dean Karlan and Chris Udry (in collaboration with seven other scholars from other institutions) that showed a multi-faceted grant-based program targeting ultra-poor households (often called the “Graduation” approach to social protection) has proven to generate long-term positive impacts in several contexts. The findings were published in the May 2015 issue of Science. The original study was groundbreaking in its approach, results, and impact. The results are widely known throughout the development community and have been implemented into governmental and NGO programs throughout the world. In fact, the World Bank’s Partnership for Economic Inclusion (PEI) reports that more than 90 million people worldwide are being served by these comprehensive, economic inclusion programs. In 2022, PEI granted $4.2 million to 19 countries and leveraged an additional $1.7 billion in financing from the World Bank for these programs. USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance, the largest bureau within the world’s largest bilateral government donor organization, has also started championing this approach due to its more streamlined operational requirements and proven evidence track record.
In addition, during the COVID pandemic, GPRL research helped determine which people in Togo had the largest need for humanitarian support. Based on the recommendations of the research team, the Togolese government and a NGO, GiveDirectly, transferred cash directly to those individuals identified. Between December 2020 and April 2021, the Togolese government provided unconditional cash transfers of $20/month to more than 150,000 Togolese citizens, which represented about a third of the country’s minimum wage.

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Global Poverty Research Lab
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