Lesson 2: Build the evidence base
The rise of buzz phrases such as “impact evaluation” and “evidence-based” has been so dramatic in social entrepreneurship that the process of monitoring and evaluation, and what it is meant to achieve, has nearly been forgotten. Entrepreneurs looking to contribute to systems change would benefit from taking a step back and recalling the purpose of evidence, and the role it can play in approaches to social problems.
Data and evidence are critical to creating feedback mechanisms in systems. When used with maximum effectiveness, monitoring and evaluation become part of a process of continuous improvement, rather than a one-time or annual event. Systems can regulate themselves thanks to feedback loops, in which timely information is in the hands of decision-makers; the latter can thus push forward when more momentum is needed, or pull back when a system is in overdrive. Most importantly, systems entrepreneurs can assess the changing environment, identify unintended consequences in real-time and alter the course if necessary.
As seen with VillageReach, the organization integrates real-time information and decision-making into its programme approach, devolving leadership to front-line health workers. Specifically, VillageReach’s approach deploys a field-level staff member, dedicated to keeping the vaccine supply chain functioning, who inputs data into an open source logistics platform that provides timely reports related to procurement and supply. This access to data serves two purposes: first, it allows the system to function better and, second, it allows VillageReach to know if its programme is having a positive impact on vaccine supply and delivery. Based on its thorough data collection, the organization rigorously evaluated its programme in 2008 and found that its work was having significant impact on vaccine availability and uptake in the pilot provinces of Mozambique.
While this evaluation gave valuable insight that VillageReach was heading in the right direction, the organization knew that this was a snapshot of the programme; it was important to ensure the assessment served as a tool for continuous evaluation. Dedicated to transparency, VillageReach routinely collects data and assesses the effectiveness of its operations, sharing this data with funders and partners as well as publicly. The organization’s data-driven approach has created a feedback mechanism that works both organizationally (continuously improving its provincial operations) as well as systemically (encouraging changes to national and even global guidelines for vaccine delivery). VillageReach’s data and evaluations have given goals to under-resourced health systems, in Mozambique and beyond, to which they can aspire. By showcasing what is possible, VillageReach inspires vaccination programmes in low-income countries throughout the world.
Evidence plays a particularly important role for organizations seeking to shift systems. This occurs when an organization seeks to influence the policies and rules governing a system, usually by advising governments in policy decisions and engaging in advocacy. However, many social entrepreneurs are focused on the organizational question: Does my programme (product, service, solution) work? – rather than on a more fundamental question: What needs to change for the system to function better?
Landesa, one of the organizations interviewed, has shown that taking a systemic, multistakeholder approach to evidence can result in far more effective advocacy efforts. Landesa is a global organization working to promote secure land rights for the poor. Secure ownership of land in the developing world is a critical contributor to sustainable livelihoods, providing access to shelter, income, education, healthcare, and improved economic and nutritional security. The organization’s core work had been to advise governments and civil society in dozens of countries to promote and implement land-rights reform initiatives that have provided legal land rights to more than 120 million families.
For many years, Landesa worked in relative obscurity, preferring to keep a low profile in its work with national governments to help change and implement land policies. While Landesa worked closely with governments and other local stakeholders in the countries where it was engaged, the organization did little to elevate land rights on the global development agenda or make common cause with others within the global development community who were working in adjacent sectors. However, in 2009, Tim Hanstad, Landesa Co-Founder and Senior Adviser, realized the challenges of scaling the organization to simultaneously operate in many countries, and became convinced that highlighting land rights as part of a broader global development strategy could accelerate impact. After much debate on how to approach a global advocacy strategy, Landesa identified the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as a critical process for putting land rights on the global agenda.
Landesa carefully designed its global advocacy strategy to bring together sectors that could promote the principle of land rights within broader global development issues. The organization decided not to promote the idea of a “land rights goal”, but rather to advocate for land rights as a target within multiple goals. Most prominently, Landesa partnered with women’s rights organizations, gathering compelling evidence that showed how empowering women with secure land rights leads to more sustainable and equitable economic development. Women’s Land and Property Rights and the Post-2015 Development Agenda,1 a White Paper co-authored by Mayra Gomez of the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and peer reviewed by three additional organizations in both the women’s rights and land rights sectors, became a foundational document for their advocacy efforts. Through gathering evidence from multiple sectors and working with a broad group of allies, Landesa was able to successfully position land rights in three of the 17 global goals of the 2030 Agenda.
At about the same time, Hanstad became convinced that Landesa needed to expand its partnership model to include work with the business community. Landesa’s primary partnerships had been with governments because providing legal land rights for poor people typically requires changes in land laws and their implementation. However, a rapid increase in private-sector, land-based agricultural investments following the food crises of 2007-2008 convinced Hanstad and his team at Landesa that the organization needed to actively engage with the business community; doing so would help prevent land rights abuses and engage private-sector actors in promoting regulatory frameworks that strengthened and protected land property rights.
For organizations seeking to effect systems change, the interviews showed that the role of evidence needs to be taken to the system level, rather than remaining at the organizational level. This can involve bringing evidence from across the sector, and even from multiple disciplines, to build a far more integrated picture of how a system functions with the introduction of new principles. As Chris Blattman, Professor, Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago (USA), writes, “Instead of asking, ‘Does the programme work?’, [we should ask], ‘How does the world work?’ What we want is a reasonably accurate model of the world: why people or communities or institutions behave the way they do, and how they will respond to an incentive, or a constraint relieved.”2