Context Matters: Ask the right questions to design the right policy

The Partnership for Economic Policy (PEP) was founded on the belief that in-country challenges require locally-devised solutions. For over two decades now, PEP—a Southern-led global organization—has supported locally-led development in the Global South through implementing nearly 400 projects in 65 countries and building the capacity of over 1250 researchers, with half of them being women. Yet, experts based in the Global North continue to lead development research and policy debates in the Global South.

The participation of researchers from the Global South in development economics research, policy and consulting activities has only marginally increased over the decades, if at all. So says evidence from a series of studies on localization launched by PEP’s Research Fellows in 2020. To quote an instance, only 1 % of researchers involved in the World Development Report (1978-2020) come from the Global South.

Southern voices must be included to inform effective development policy solutions and outcomes. Thus, PEP drew on its series of studies to launch a call-to-action (CtA) to address this persistent marginalization of voices from Southern countries. The CtA was signed by more than 80 leading economists to advocate for the changes necessary to increase the participation of Southern researchers.

To take this forward, we are now launching a blog series titled Context Matters, interviewing PEP’s large network of local experts. The series will highlight why their deeper understanding of the social, political and economic contexts of their countries, their in-country relationships with policymakers and other relevant stakeholders, and their presence on the ground is critical to shaping better welfare outcomes for the population of the Global South.

The first interview is with Nisha Arunatilake, a PEP Research Fellow, co-author of the CtA, and the Director of Research and a fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) in Sri Lanka.

What is the impact of the marginalisation of Southern researchers in policy research on the ground?

A critical fallout on the ground is the lack of local presence to push for change, which is an imperative given policy uptake is highly dependent on existing political regimes and their mandates.

To illustrate this, I would like to share the example of an important study on labor market diagnostics in Sri Lanka led by the World Bank with a large consortium of international researchers. Ultimately, the government did not take it on board.

This was because the party in power in Sri Lanka changed during the course of the research and the final document had to be reworked to be pitched effectively to the next regime. At the same time, the internal mandate of the World Bank changed and most of the team with in-depth knowledge was replaced by a new one. The new team was unable to advocate for the uptake of the recommendations with the new political stakeholders, and hence these were not fully implemented.

The sudden shift in the in-country political context in Sri Lanka is not unusual. As policy windows change from time to time, the involvement of local researchers on the ground is necessary to see the research through to its logical conclusion.


What are your views on sustaining policy change?

Sustainability is a pressing concern. Often, even if good policies are formulated the implementation remains weak as our institutions lack capacity. At other times, good, effective programs are discontinued due to lack of funding.

For instance, in Sri Lanka, education is publicly funded. The central Ministry distributes learning materials to schools, which may not necessarily meet their specific needs. A World Bank initiative thus suggested that government-allocated monies be distributed equally among schools so they can purchase materials as necessary. However, a PEP-funded study highlighted poor monitoring and evaluation, and under-development of the initial project, which curtailed the effectiveness of the approach.

Such bottlenecks can be addressed through persistent work on the ground and the ability of local researchers to lead this is non-negotiable. All research must ultimately improve the welfare of the people and this must be the starting point.

An academically rigorous paper by itself will not have the desired impact unless we also think about the relevant stakeholders who can facilitate policy change and the best channels to engage them.


Does having local expertise influence the policy design itself?

PEP’s recent research program on barriers to women’s access to decent work exemplifies this point clearly. Contextual understanding is essential for effective policy design and local researchers are able to provide this knowledge as they are embedded in the local context.

For instance, providing daycare as a policy solution for working mothers may not be sufficient if it does not take the unique and different country-specific needs into account. Take the example of Brazil, which offers a publicly-funded daycare program till 4 p.m. while most people work till 5 p.m. and hence it has not been impactful.

Similarly, in Sri Lanka, sexual harassment in the workplace is addressed by the law but it falls under criminal law and not under labor law. In the Sri Lankan context, it is nearly impossible for a woman to get justice under criminal law and hence the grievance redressal mechanism has to take this important contextual nuance into account. The current policy is not practical as most female workers are not educated, cannot afford a lawyer, and police stations are staffed by male officers who are not gender-sensitive themselves. Thus, it is only local knowledge that can inform practical policy design for effective implementation.


Why is it important to include local researchers from the start of a research project – a point you have often made?

To ask the right questions! If large academic research studies only reach out to local researchers to validate the findings, it is inadequate and often funding is provided to solutions to the ‘wrong’ problems.

Let me share another example from the Sri Lankan context to explain this. The Multidimensional Vulnerability Index (MVI) policy report, prepared by foreign researchers, identified ‘unemployment’ as an important vulnerability indicator.

However, this fails to take a deeper understanding of the Sri Lankan context into account where often those from relatively well-off families choose to remain unemployed as they wait for a suitable public sector job offer. While the poorer people have to work, as they don’t have a choice. Hence, the indicator itself is questionable as in Sri Lanka unemployment cannot be directly co-related to vulnerability, given this complexity.

Similarly, non-communicable health issues were an under-reported variable as poorer people often don’t do regular health check-ups unless they suffer a serious health issue.


How does a Northern lens impact the overall research agenda?

It is narrow in its approach as it is driven primarily by methodology and omits critical development issues where there are data gaps in the current knowledge.

I did my PhD in the United States of America and in the North where we had access to rigorous data sets that allowed the use of sophisticated econometric models to address developmental issues. But there are several issues in developing countries where such sophisticated data may not be readily available and hence we need to find ways of addressing the problem using limited data.

Instead of making data-driven methodology the entry point for defining the research agenda, we must consider the problem we want to solve as primary and work with available data to address the issue. This will also ensure that recommendations are applicable to the context of a Southern country. For example, the World Health Organization has a regular set of recommendations for improving food environments (as a measure for reducing non-communicable disease risks). But many of the suggested action plans are not applicable for the urban poor, given their unique lifestyles and living environments. One such recommendation is food cultivation, which is not possible for people in urban slums due to spaceconstraints.

Hence, meaningful inclusion of Southern researchers would mean involving them from the start and including their inputs in shaping the research agenda, in designing conferences, and in leading real change on the ground to benefit the population of the South.

It is time to give Southern researchers a fair chance on an unfair playing field.


Watch out for more interviews with our Research Fellows and Resource Persons that highlight the importance of Southern perspectives through their lens.


Logo global affairs canada
Logo Hewlett Foundation
Logo Co-Impact
Logo IDRC - CRDI Canada
Logo Mastercard Foundation