The role of research and evaluation in development of an organisation is hardly debated. Unfortunately, however, the empirics on this count are very rare. Recently, this writer came across a document that highlights the role of research in an organisation, and assumes that history could serve as a lesson for others too.
Journal of Development Effectiveness (Routledge, 2014) draws our attention to an important but very unconventional topic such as the role of research and evaluation in fulfilling the objectives of an organisation - be it government, NGO or private. Written by Ahmed Mushtaque Raza Chowdhury, Andrew Jenkins and Marziana Mahfuz Nandita, the contents of the paper hover around an institution's commitment to transparency and accountability that is induced by internal mechanism of checks and cross-checks. While thread-baring on the issue, the authors take up the world's renowned NGO BRAC as a case study. They were possibly propelled by the notion that among national and international NGOs, only BRAC has a large fleet of researchers to support its development programmes. It also seems to drive home a point - saving lives of the teeming millions through development projects is not merely a function of the financial resources at hand; it is also of the use of human resources devoted to research and evaluation in both pre- and post-project stages. Measurement matters in the sphere of development interventions, and imperfections in measurement could be counter-productive. There are many reputed organisations in the world which apparently neglected research and monitoring in the project life-cycle and thus were doomed to see the door.
The beauty of BRAC lies in its four key measures of the programme covering as many as 12 or more major development areas. The programme areas include health, nutrition and population, microfinance, education, agriculture and food security, targeting the ultra-poor, water, sanitation and hygiene, social development, community empowerment, human rights, gender justice and diversity, disaster, environment and climate etc. In addition to these, social enterprises appear separately but are also being fed through constant research and monitoring.
BRAC International is another window to serve beyond the boundary of Bangladesh - in as many as 12 countries. By and large, all of these development programmes that BRAC adopt have to pass through a series of tests to get a final nod from top notches and once approved, have to face few rounds of checks and balances.
The first move towards transparency and integrity in BRAC is through monitoring and investigation carried out by a monitoring unit as part of BRAC's internal control mechanism. The unit's objective is to conduct periodic analysis, enabling the management to determine whether the key activities are being carried out as planned and whether they are having the expected outputs in relation to the target population. The second key element is financial control and monitoring, carried out by two independent departments, finance and accounts, and internal audit (in addition, BRAC is independently audited annually). The third key element is external project reviews, which is carried out by specially-recruited teams of national and international consultants, usually for mid-term and final project reviews, but sometimes also for annual reviews. A fourth key element is research and evaluation, about which we shall dwell at length in the following paragraphs.
The Research and Evaluation Division (RED) is an independent research division within the organization of BRAC. Research is integral to the NGO's development activity and has been so since inception. The founder of BRAC, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, is reported to reckon that constant research and evaluation is instrumental in designing BRAC's pioneering interventions. It is thus no wonder that RED came into being in 1975 - almost the same time BRAC was born (1972). Over time, the division has been playing an important role in designing BRAC's development interventions, monitoring progress, documenting achievements and undertaking impact assessment studies.
According to the authors, RED has produced nearly 1,353 research reports, 350 journal articles, 274 book and book chapters, 19 theses, 55 research monographs, 111 working papers, 24 volume of Nirjash - a research compendium in the Bangla language, 174 popular articles in newsletters and newspapers. As a multidisciplinary team, its reputation has spilled over the boundary of Bangladesh, and eminent organisations of the world have developed collaborative research with RED. "It provides an analytical basis for BRAC's programmatic decisions, fine-tuning it for better performance and making development efforts evidence-based, effective and community-sensitive". Further, RED conducts programme-driven research in agriculture, applied and reproductive health, communicable and non-communicable diseases, education, environment, extreme poverty, food security and nutrition, microfinance and social development and human rights etc. The division also caters to issues of national and international importance independently and in collaboration with reputed academic institutions and agencies. The current Vice-Chairperson, current Executive Director, the former Executive Director as well as a number of the board members of the organisation are well-known researchers in their own fields. This has provided an added impetus for RED to take the job seriously.
The prime goal of BRAC is to alleviate poverty and reduce inequality. In a broader spectrum, its goal is to ensure 'development' through the programmes it undertakes. As a unit of BRAC, the goal of RED is also to alleviate poverty through a different process. RED shows the most cost-effective mode to reach the goal in a regime of scarcity of resources. It is in fact an idea that states that however small or big every NGO or development organisation, it needs to have its own research capacity.
The process followed at BRAC is to have a portion of the budget of any project allocated for research i.e., roughly 1-2 per cent of the programme budget must be stipulated for carrying out research and evaluation in pre- and post-project phases. BRAC wants to convince other NGOs and institutions that it is important that they have something in house to measure the impact of their works.
The results of research and evaluations anywhere are very easy to appreciate but very difficult to swallow. They are like taking bitter pills to cure the disease. The choice is between rejecting bitter pills and continue with conundrum and vice versa. The mindset of the person at the top of office matters most. As head of the institution, one has to accept criticisms, suggestions and even be ready to abandon the idea if research and evaluation stand otherwise. BRAC's top notches and programme heads seem to believe in swallowing bitter pills to get rid of the pains - as reflected by their emphasis on research and evaluation. One stitch in time saves nine - research and evaluation are just that.
The writer is a Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University.