Evidence-based policy: a matter of luck?

Last week I was in Phnom Penh and had a nice chat with Kurt Bredenberg, an expert of education policy in Cambodia and a long time resident in the country. While talking about the school cluster policy the conversation touched upon the Priority Action Program, or PAP. PAP started as a pilot in ten provinces in 2000 with the aim to reduce the cost burden of the poorest families and to increase participation of their children in grades 1-9. It was then expanded as a policy to the whole country. The guiding principle of PAP has been the channeling of funds more efficiently to the local level and schools, bypassing rigidities and delays caused by the traditional centralised budget execution system.

Kurt said that the PAP represented a lucky coincidence of events where demand and supply of research evidence met at the right time. In other words, good and influential pieces of research by Mike Ratcliffe, Vin McNamara, and Kurt himself were produced and communicated in the right way and met the demand for research evidence by the Ministry of Education Youth and Sports.  This is probably the best example of evidence-based policymaking in education in Cambodia.

The outcomes of the PAP has been a marked increase in enrollment in primary schools due to the abolition of informal payments for family of kids in primary education and scholarship programme that helped poor families.

On the flight from Phnom Penh to Hong Kong I thought about our conversation while reading review of a new book by Ed Smith titled Luck: What It Means and Why it Matters.

For Smith Luck matters a great deal in life. However, this is not recognized by the people who have had it most. Smith argues that in fact most successful people who have been invariably lucky prefer to ascribe their success to merit alone.

So, luck does not belong to this modern or postmodern time which have been marked, in the words of Jonathan Snacks, chief rabbi of the Commonwealth by the  ‘transition from fate to choice.’

Smith points out that the large number of self-help books which crowd the shelves of airport bookshops are a clear indication that luck is quickly going out of fashion and is being substituted by a new mantra: ‘you make your own luck’. Anybody can achieve anything. It is only a matter of believing in yourself. The corollary being that if somebody does not achieve his or her goals lack self-belief more than luck or the luck of having talent.

For Smith the importance that is attributed to planning is another indicator of that luck is going out of fashion. A too great belief in planning, argues Smith, usually overestimates human control of events.

So what to do? How to bring luck back into the equation of possibilities? Smith returns to the example of planning and argues that people and organizations should see themselves as adjusting constantly to changes in circumstances rather than controlling change. Successful people are usually open to opportunities and expose themselves to chance and risks that may prove fruitful.

That is all ok, but does this refer to evidence based policy and the role that research and knowledge play in strengthening policy and development practice such as in the case of education in Cambodia?

I think we need to recognize that luck plays a bigger role that we like to admit in the area of evidence based policy influencing (and more in general in development). The problem is that policy research institutes that receive funding to conduct policy influencing research would have hard times to justify the investments to development partners by arguing that their influencing impact (or lack thereof) has been due to luck or back luck. The approach has been to tell successful stories ex post, reconnecting dots moving backwards in time to find evidence of the influencing effect of a piece or various pieces of research.

As argued by Malcolm Gladwell in his What the Dog Saw telling the story a posteriori is much easier than to foresee events a priori when the possibilities are innumerable and the consequences of choice unforeseeable. Then and there is when luck comes into play.

I think that in the case of evidence-based policymaking (i.e. my area of work) there is a need to recognize that faith and luck are also needed. Faith because we cannot proof 100% that research evidence and knowledge lead to better policies and practice, but we need to believe in it. Luck because the more we speak of influencing complex social and political systems, the more we need to acknowledge that luck contributes in determining the outcomes that we wish to achieve.

After all, as argued by Dennis Rondinelli, development projects (and I would add policy research projects) are policy experiments that by nature can go well or not and that we need to recognize that luck plays an important role in it. What matters, argues Rondinelli, is to learn from these experiments.

Having recognized this I think that is perfectly ok to develop systems, processes and tools that can help us plan and manage the complexity reality, or at least give us an illusion of control. However, by recognizing the role that luck plays in policy research projects, we can retain the flexibility required to adjust to new circumstances and remain usually open to opportunities that arise.

As I am writing this I remember what my Khmer language teacher, Samnang, who had lived in Germany for a long time once told me: ‘In the West when you think about time you picture yourself as walking towards the future and having the back to the past. In Asia, we look instead towards the past, at what we have accomplished and the security that we have provided to our families. The future is behind our back, hidden and out of our control.

I do not know how many of you would agree about what Samnang (which by the way in Khmer means luck) said, but for myself having lived in South East Asia for almost ten years think that there is certainly some truth in his words. I think that there is nothing bad in claiming that a project has lucky or maybe unlucky. However, that should not in itself be the whole story since both projects can have a lot to tell. After all I am from the West and my genes tell me to look towards the future. At the same time, however I am have also become more used to look more often behind my back at what I/we have achieved so far in researching the ways knowledge and evidence can better inform policy decisions and processes and recognizing that luck, more often than not, is important.

I want to close with the words of two philosophers:

‘Reverence, humility, contentment, gratitude and hearing the good Dhamma; this is the best good luck.’ (Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha)

‘We never keep to the present. We recall the past. We anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up. We wander about in times that do not belong to us.’ (Blaise Pascal)

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