The Art And Science Of Effective Research In The Field Of Policymaking
What is the need for effective research? The need for research lies in its potential of being a reservoir of facts and figures, of intelligence and knowledge, which helps us understand trends and impact, amongst others, in order to design next steps of action, short-term plans/corrections, if any, and/or mid- to long-term strategies. Besides this, one of the most important roles that research plays is in the field of policymaking.
Every person deserves to lead a more secure, prosperous, and dignified life. With that vision in mind, the mission of the S M Sehgal Foundation (SMSF) is to strengthen community-led development initiatives to achieve positive social, economic and environmental change across rural India. With the support from donors and partners, rural development interventions are designed and created with the objectives of creating opportunities, building resilience, and providing solutions to some of the most pressing challenges in India’s poorest communities. The foundation team works together with rural communities to create sustainable programs for managing water resources, increasing agricultural productivity, and strengthening rural governance. The team’s emphasis on gender equality and women’s empowerment is driven by the realization that human rights are central to developing every person’s potential.
Since quality is one of the operational principles at SMSF, projects are implemented in a scientific manner, which involves baseline data collection for research prior to the onset of projects, monitoring and evaluation during the project and impact assessment upon completion. Research is an integral component of all projects. Detailed operational and financial documentation is maintained for all projects.
“As a mission-driven organization, Sehgal Foundation strives to design each of our programmes to effectively engage rural communities in programme design, implementation and evaluation, creating the best chance of achieving maximum impact for sustainability and scalability. The Rural Research Center (RRC) at the foundation was created out of the need felt to quantify the impact we were creating and to size down our interventions based on what was making an impact and what was not. The Rural Research Centre maximizes the impact of rural development initiatives by relying on participatory research and impact assessment as a rigorous strategy and a practical tool for informed actions, results and learning. This is vital. Simply put, ‘impact’ is the measurable difference the foundation is making in the lives of people we reach as a result of our own intervention. Impact assessment is an iterative process. For each impact area defined, we are continually learning about the most effective strategy to determine how we might see change happen and whether the indicators we are using will deliver the most meaningful results,” says Niti Saxena, Director, Development Research and Policy Initiatives, Sehgal Foundation.
Research Initiatives at S M Sehgal Foundation (SMSF) are split under two broad themes – Research, Monitoring and Evaluation (RME) and Development Research and Policy Initiatives (DRPI). The RME works towards maximizing the impact of poverty alleviation initiatives, designed for rural communities, through the use of participatory research and impact assessment. It focuses on integrating all components of the research process, which are undertaken to conceptualize, design and implement interventions by SMSF in rural areas. This includes needs assessments, baseline surveys, situation analysis, monitoring and evaluation studies. DRPI places focus on bridging research with policy. DRPI’s primary objective is to develop a coherent and coordinated policy and research initiative that supports the impact based work at the foundation.
Adds Saxena: “The organization has four thematic areas of focus: rural prosperity, good governance, community empowerment and gender equality; these define our primary domains of development activity, help us stay focused on the positive difference we want to make across rural India and give us greater insight into how we plan and improve our programmes. We know the success of RRC’s two core programmes – MLE and DPR – depend on the value of the leadership and staff placed on them. The design of our programmes and outcomes are driven by two questions: ‘What is the change we want to see?’ and ‘What needs to happen to ensure this change?’”
So, to begin with: Why is it important to assess needs? Zilch correlation between needs and interventions results in the futility of efforts made – something no one would want.
Broadly speaking, the foundation designs the programmes based on the needs of the villagers. Needs assessment and research is conducted for the purpose of understanding specific needs of the community, to elicit the reasons causing the deficit, and devising or discussing probable solutions in engagement with the community. This research helps in gauging the causality of a social problem that is an interplay of various social, economic, political, cultural and environmental factors. A thorough needs assessment will inform about the most pressing need, the causality for development gap, the most affected population and the services required to address the gaps. This exercise helps the foundation to make decisions regarding priorities for the programs/interventions.
At SMSF, needs assessment and research is undertaken using both, quantitative and qualitative tools. In the first step, the problem in the community is identified in an objective and unbiased manner, which is done by quantitative surveys (questionnaires and structured interviews). In the second step, the factors contributing to the current situation (problems) in the region are identified. This is done by utilising qualitative tools like focus group discussions, social mapping, and observations. In the last step, the list of feasible solutions/interventions to address the outlined problems is identified.
Pradeep Mehta, Director, Research, Monitoring and Evaluation, Sehgal Foundation, elaborates: “We follow a results-based monitoring and evaluation (M&E) framework, which is divided into three broad phases – planning, measurement and evaluation. Involvement of the community is warranted in all stages of interventions, which initiates right from the planning phase to the execution of the project. The planning phase initiates with priority setting at the local level as needs are always infinite to be achieved by finite resources. Once the set of problems is identified i.e. by understanding both the needs of the community and their existing problems, it is important to identify the resources available, both at the local level and elsewhere, and both monetary and non-monetary. Once the intervention is clearly articulated, the next step is to prepare the matrix of activities and outcomes of the selected intervention. Community agreement on the outcomes is essential for their support and understanding of the context in which the intervention is planned to be implemented. This phase ensures the involvement of all stakeholders in a given area, dialogue and negotiations and achieving a result that is adopted and supported by majority of stakeholders.”
The measurement phase of intervention is different in that it focusses on collection of data and using and sharing information throughout the project implementation. As the intervention of the project is done over a period of time, this phase also involves understanding the progress towards the target and learnings or improvements. The phase involves collection of baseline data prior to the initiation of a project and also ensures continuous data collection and sharing of information with the community across implementation. The community is also involved in framing the right set questions for the purpose of measuring change over time.
The two stages above are followed by the third and final stage, which focuses on understanding the change, intended and unintended, brought about by the implementation of the project. The main task is to report findings from the implementation of the project and share the same not only with the donors but also with the community. Sharing findings with the community can help in building better sustenance of the results from the implementers, who generally leave after the project finishes.
All said and done the implementation of research tools and techniques have to be feasible, logical, inclusive and scientific. This is vital for gauging the impact of the intervention done.
Mehta elaborates on the tools selected: “Triangulation of qualitative and quantitative techniques facilitates a more comprehensive understanding of issues under investigation. Working with minority groups, an array of participatory appraisal techniques are employed in order to facilitate better articulation of the perspectives of stakeholders in the process. These include conducting focus group discussions, mapping of various aspects, employing problem tree approach etc. For instance, in order to understand the problems that the inhabitants of Mewat, which is the foundation’s focus area of intervention, focus group discussions are done with various groups in the villages so as to obtain different perspectives. To ensure that a holistic picture has been captured, social and resource mapping techniques are employed to identify the domains where the villagers feel there are gaps that need to be filled. Such methodologies are regularly being employed in all impact evaluation studies conducted at SMSF as well as thematic research studies which SMSF has undertaken in collaboration with external agencies such as the Ministry of Women and Child Development. There are other examples of such studies, which have impacted policy making for example: ‘Exploring The Gender Dimension of Water: A Case Mewat’; Identifying Backwardness Of Mewat Region In Haryana: A Block Level Analysis which was a study sponsored by the Research Division, NITI Aayog, Government of India; Assessment Of Convergence of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan with Selected Central and State Government Schemes.”
With increasing interest in, and requests for social sector organizations to show effectiveness in research and to reinforce internal knowledge management systems, the foundation’s Rural Research Center is on the leading edge. Linking traditional approaches to evidence-based monitoring, and evaluation to the practice of impact assessment, Rural Research Center is creating the systems and standards for translating outputs to outcomes, and ultimately impact, setting flexible and responsive indicators that assess the early stages of progress and intermediate changes.
Adds Mehta: “Also, what is important to know is that through this center, a space is created, which allows one to be honest about failures and to learn from them. Increasingly, accountability and learning are brought together and shared with donors and partners. This facilitates healthy improvement.”
One of the primary aims of the center is also to share the foundation’s learning and good practice with other practitioners, and bring it to the attention of policy-makers and donors, as well as civil society activists and researchers.
As the famous African proverb goes: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” Nothing could encompass the essence of the world we live in today, more aptly, than this line. For in sharing knowledge, collaborative and sustainable solutions can be found for a better future.