(A snapshot from inside Twaweza’s library in their Dar es Salaam office. Credit: Alisa Zomer.)

When one sets out with big goals of change —improving education and governance— it’s hard to admit you were wrong. Especially in what can sometimes be a navel-gazing development community, it is refreshing to see organizations that systematically try to learn and adapt based on evidence of what works and what doesn’t. In this spirit, Twaweza East Africa, a long-time GOV/LAB partner, convened a diverse and energetic group of practitioners and researchers to share their ideas and evidence in Dar es Salaam.

Twaweza kicked off the event by underscoring some of their main learnings and strategic changes in the ten years since their founding. After initially focusing on improving school enrollment, Twaweza learned from the data that even with higher school attendance rates, education quality was poor. For example, in Tanzania, efforts to increase parental participation in education did not affect learning outcomes, a new cash-on-delivery model for teacher performance seems more promising. The need to focus on learning outcomes is evident, but the exact pathway to do so is less clear. Twaweza also discussed how to advance an open government agenda in a context of closing civic spaces.

Natsnet Ghebrebrhan from Raising Voices in Uganda discussed work on preventing violence against women and children – the model starts with a vision of positive family interaction, is built on learning, and includes a strong focus on engaging men. GOV/LAB Graduate Research Fellow Leah Rosenzweig presented her dissertation work on the social norms of voting in Tanzania, a research collaboration with Twaweza. Gilbert Ssendugwa from Africa Freedom of Information Centre shared his successful creation of an procurement portal for open contracting in Uganda.

Togolani Mavura, Private Secretary to President Kikwete in Tanzania, provided some hard and fast tips on when lobbying fails (poor financing and scalability; no convincing human narrative; bad timing; the idea is good, but not good enough) and how to get officials, who are overworked, overstretched, and ultimately human, to listen. The list of stellar practitioners and all-star academic presentations goes on (full agenda online). Below are a few more notes on interesting questions and ideas that emerged from the event.

Information plus what?

Duncan Green from Oxfam started off the panel discussions with a provocation – the rights-based approach on access to information has created a false binary in understanding how information affects change – and, we need to move beyond the ‘magic sauce’ of access to information. The message resonated strongly, as I was presenting GOV/LAB’s research with Twaweza on this very topic in the next session. In our mystery shopper experiment, we set out to test whether framing information requests as motivated by legal or personal reasons would matter in our ability to get information.

Building on this idea, a recent evidence review conducted by GOV/LAB Director Lily Tsai and Twaweza’s Varja Lipovsek reinforced what many have experienced on the ground – while necessary, information alone is insufficient to improve government accountability. Most civil society efforts seem to focus on monitoring government activities and getting information, but less have the capacity or skills to follow up on what they find and getting government to act. The question becomes, What is needed beyond the right to information (ie. advocacy, movement building, etc.) to hold officials to account?, especially for unelected bureaucrats at the local level.

Where is the faith?

The role of faith was mentioned in at least two different contexts. The first was understanding empowerment and what makes people act. As Oxfam’s Duncan Green stated, we still don’t understand the role of faith-based groups in motivating (or perhaps controlling) people. Twaweza’s Director Aidan Eyakuze’s framing remarks on turning tides and global shifts towards populism makes this question, about belief and motivation, even more salient. Understanding what influences behavior, how people vote, and perhaps more importantly, how they interact with government between elections, is a critical area of study.

The second mention of faith was in regards to our own community (of researchers and practitioners) and how we use ‘evidence’, referring in this case to the promotion of quantitative methods and randomized control trials (RCTs) as the gold-standard. Rakesh Rajani, Twaweza’s founder and currently at Ford Foundation, started with a vivid scenario in which we, the audience, are part of a fervent church, laying hands, speaking in tongues, and going out to proselytize our beliefs to the world. He asks, why we are surprised when our ‘evidence’ isn’t taken seriously?

Rakesh went on to explain the importance of building constituencies for the use and application of evidence for policy and decision-making. He drew an analogy to how the National Rifle Association (NRA) builds communities (hint: it doesn’t start with guns), which reminded me of Hahrie Han’s New York Times op-ed on grassroots organizing and what the progressive left in the U.S. can learn from the NRA.

A part of how we learn is humility. That is, admitting when we’re wrong and knowing that even with evidence, we don’t necessarily have all the answers. According to Rosie McGee from the Institute for Development Studies, RCTs seem to be good at telling us what doesn’t work. She went further to question Twaweza’s investment in RCTs and raised the wider issue of whether the organization should in fact be experimenting in the implementation of education. Though the Twaweza event included a mix of qualitative and quantitative studies, Rosie’s comments on the use of RCTs and the ethics of experiments provoked thought, and warrant deeper discussion, especially as Twaweza decides how to move forward.

What’s next on Twaweza’s learning curriculum?

The organization is preparing its third major strategy iteration in the decade since its founding. During the final session, one of Twaweza’s early team members pointed out that Twaweza (“we can make it happen” in Swahili) is an idea that is much bigger than a single organization. Finding a balance between the idea and the reality is important in allowing the brand to thrive. Adding to this, balancing learning and humility with aspiration and hope (drivers not so easily quantified) is critical to move from ideas to evidence and from learning to action.