Last week, CEGA’s EASST collaborative and the Agricultural Technology Adoption Initiative (ATAI) programs came together to host the 2017 East Africa Evidence Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The conference spanned two days: the first focused on disseminating new findings on East Africa by EASST fellows and various East Africa- focused researchers; and the second featured presentations from various ATAI grantees, sharing the latest insights on food security in the region. This blog post will focus on highlights from the first day, which featured three broad panels: Health and Education, Agriculture and the Environment, Governance and Empowerment. Following these presentations, the day concluded with a discussion panel on “Translating Research to Policy in the East African Context,” which featured speakers from a breadth of backgrounds discussing the perennial, yet non-trivial, question of how research can actually make the leap to impact the lives of the most vulnerable in East Africa.
In the first panel, IGC Country Economist for Ethiopia Yared Seid described his findings from a unique natural experiment in Ethiopia that revealed that children studying in their mother tongue first improves their academic performance (as measured by math test scores) years after they transition to English instruction. EASST Fellow John Bosco Asiimwe shared results from a randomized control trial he conducted that revealed that usage of oral rehydration salts + zinc greatly improves when the supplements are delivered preemptively and for free during household visits by community health workers.
Later in the day, during the Agriculture and Environment panel, EASST Fellow and World Bank Economist Anthony Mveyange made a compelling case in his presentation “Climate Variability and Infant Mortality: Evidence from the Developing World” for exploring both direct and indirect effects of climate change on health outcomes. Mveyange detailed how he and his coauthors found that temperature shocks increase the risks of both neo-natal and post-natal infant deaths. These results have several policy implications, including the importance of strengthening health delivery systems and public health information systems, as well as utilizing heat early warning systems.
Also presenting in the Agriculture and the Environment segment, CEGA Faculty Director and UC Berkeley Economics Professor Ted Miguel revealed experimental evidence on the “Demand for Costs of Rural Electrification” in Kenya. Miguel and his co-authors studied why rates of rural electrification in Kenya are so low despite significant government investments in grid infrastructure by observing how demand for electrification changes at different price points. Miguel’s research revealed that (at least in the short –term), the costs of rural electrification in rural Kenya are much higher than the demand, and that poor households will not find rural electrification transformational to their overall well-being. In the question and answer period, members of the audience revealed their surprise at these findings, which are counterintuitive to many-- to which Miguel replied “this is why we need research!” It is important not to just base policies on what we think is best for a certain group of people—we need to test these assumptions.
To conclude the day, the policy panel brought tangible insights on how to increase evidence based decision-making in the East African policy context. Alemayehu Seyoum Tafesse (Senior Researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute, Country Director of the International Growth Center in Ethiopia, and President of the Ethiopian Economics Association) discussed three major constraints to research translating into policy: capacity of policymakers’ time and resources to take research into account, institutional influence of an individual policy maker, and subject-matter expertise to understand the results of research. In addition to these common barriers, he pointed out that researchers often ignore the incentives and constraints of policy makers, which may or may not be aligned with researcher’s evidence. He emphasized that "policy impact shouldn't be an afterthought to research-- it should be a part of the design." Building off of Tafesse’s answer, Kizito Omala stated that what often blocks policy makers from using evidence is the complexity of the research. Besides simplifying their findings, Omala pointed out that it would be helpful if researchers could sit in on policy makers’ meetings, to understand what they are grappling with and what they truly need.
Overall, it was a successful convening of people interested in the social and economic welfare of East Africa. Special thanks to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Department for International Development (DFID) of the UK Government for their kind sponsorship of this conference. Special thank you also to Rajiv and Parbatee Ramrattan, who generously donated funding for East African Researchers in honour of their son Ravi Ramrattan, who was dedicated to research on poverty and economics East Africa and tragically passed away in the Westgate attack of 2013. Please click here to donate to his cause.