Lessons from a year at DFID

Rachel Glennerster, DFID Chief Economist

Rachel Glennerster, DFID Chief Economist

I am particularly reflective this January as it marks a year since I took up the post of Chief Economist. What a fascinating and exciting year it has been! I have visited the Kenya, Somalia, Mozambique, India, Sierra Leone, and Jordan offices as well as the US. I have been immersed in policy discussions from trade and debt to climate change and education. I have met and learned a lot from DFID staff and partners.


Five lessons stand out:

  1. We have tremendous opportunity for influence. DFID is at the cutting edge of global evidence through our world class research portfolio and professional adviser expertise. We have thorough country diagnostics and access to senior policy makers. Transformative influence comes from combining the two: interpreting and applying the global evidence to local needs and constraints. This is hard and requires us to think about evidence in a slightly different way but it is where we can make the biggest difference. As countries get richer, helping them spend their own money more effectively will become a more important route to reducing poverty than the UK directly paying for services. This is one of the key messages for me coming out of DFID’s strategic directions and work we have done reviewing the evidence on the most cost-effective solutions for development.
  2. We need to work at larger scale. Our suppliers want to be able to show us a project that looks great — a well-equipped, smoothly functioning school, factory or clinic. The temptation is to focus resources on a few locations and make them work brilliantly rather than deliver less intense (and potentially less visible), change at scale. However, it is far better to achieve a 10% improvement for 1 million people than a 50% improvement for 1,000. Kenya provided a great example of what Fatima from Mozambique called, “massification”: by supporting the development and rigorous testing of a structured learning approach that proved highly successful and was scaled up by the Kenyan Government, DFID helped change teaching and improve learning outcomes across the entire country. How do we focus on scale? We need to be more transparent about the numbers we intend to reach, think more about the cost per beneficiary, and do fewer simpler projects that reach millions.
  3. Scale and complexity are often at odds. There is too often an assumption that because a problem has multiple drivers a program needs to have multiple elements, one addressing each driver. There are examples where we have strong evidence that doing multiple components at once is important, but this evidence is rarer than is often thought. We frequently have evidence of highly cost-effective ways to improve outcomes through relatively simple programs. We should do these at massive scale and not complicate them with untested additional components.
  4. Great is much better than good. The Secretary of State has challenged us not just to make sure aid is spent effectively but spent in the most effective way possible. This is a hard but important challenge. Too often we ask, is there evidence this works, rather than is this the best possible approach. The evidence on cost-effectiveness shows that the best interventions can be 10 or even 100 times more effective than even effective interventions. We must continue to challenge ourselves not to settle for good but to go for great.
  5. We should judge our success on a portfolio basis. Not every project will be a success. We work in difficult places tackling intransigent issues. If every project worked we would not be taking enough risk. Much as venture capitalists do, we need to think of our investments as a portfolio. The wins when they come can be very big (for example when we manage to change national policy or help trigger economic transformation) and a few big wins can pay for all the less successful projects. If we change our narrative to explicitly predict failure in a proportion of projects in a portfolio, will that give senior responsible owners (SROs) the license to admit failures when they come and scale back?

Last year, DFID economists (with others) worked on country diagnostics and assessments of the evidence on cost-effectiveness by sector that have the potential to shape decisions for years to come. This year, we will build on this analytical base to achieve the influence, scale and great outcomes that will help transform the lives of the poor


Biography: Rachel Glennerster is the Chief Economist of DFID. From 2004–2017 she was Executive Director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), a research center in the Economics Department at MIT that seeks to reduce poverty by ensuring that policy is informed by scientific evidence.

Rachel’s own research spans governance, education, health, microcredit, community development and women’s empowerment in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sierra Leone. She is coauthor of Strong Medicine: Creating Incentives for Pharmaceutical Research on Neglected Diseases, and Running Randomized Evaluations: A Practical Guide. She has held positions at the International Monetary Fund, Her Majesty’s Treasury and the Harvard Institute for International Development. Follow Rachel on twitter @rglenner


Follow @DFID_Research for the latest DFID research news, jobs and funding.