More on the Practitioner-Researcher Interface
I have gotten lot of feedback on my previous post about the researcher/practitioner divide in microfinance. Needless to say, not all of it has been positive (though some has been very supportive).
I now see some omissions in the original post. As I mentioned in the comments section, there have been positive examples of researchers making efforts to set the record straight when the mainstream media reported in an inaccurate, harmful and sensationalistic way on their findings. I should have spent more time looking for the links to them but now I have published the best example, and others have given additional links. I still think researchers could have done more, but it is important to acknowledge what has been done.
Further, I should have mentioned a generous offer made by Dean Karlan to speak to practitioners assembled by Grameen Foundation about what research tells us about what works best in microfinance – something we intend to take him up on at some point. However, I believe that writing a paper on “lessons for practice,” as I have proposed, is considerably more cost-effective than one-off trainings and all the travel expenses they entail. That is why I was so pleased that Tim Ogden agreed to take this idea up.
I suppose that is what struck me so much by Tim Ogden’s positive and immediate response to my plea that he take on writing a “lessons for practice” paper – for whatever reason, he was willing to grant that an idea from someone outside the research community was valid and worthy of his time. I have not seen a lot of that to date. In my mind, he was implicitly admitting that there may have been something researchers had missed in terms of maximizing the public utility of their efforts. I found that refreshing.
Looking ahead, I think it is important to create a space where researchers and practitioners can work more collaboratively to advance learning, practice, and impact. Some years ago David Roodman and Beth Rhyne hosted a meeting that attempted to do that, but it was not successful. During that meeting I proposed, for example, that researchers offer to brief practitioners on upcoming research prior to being released, so we could ask questions, get clarification, think about implications, and prepare questions that would come our way from the media. The research community assembled that day turned down this suggestion.
Perhaps that meeting and my idea were ahead of their time. Today, Innovations for Poverty Action, the Financial Access Initiative and ideas42 are making worthy efforts to create this space. I give them an A for effort even though there is still clearly a lot of ground left to take. Alex Rizzi made some very concrete observations and suggestions on my earlier blog, which I commend and hope people take notice of. Those comments have prompted me to commit publicly to somehow find the money to translate the “lessons to practice” paper into several languages once it is complete.
An issue I may explore elsewhere relates to who is paying for research into the impact of microfinance, and whether that biases the results in any way. I need to give that more thought and I welcome input. I am told that the RCT-practice issue is also complex in the health care industry and there are many parallels with our own journey in the microfinance and financial inclusion arenas.
I am pleased to report that when I talked to Tim Ogden in London at the Financial Inclusion 2020 conference, about which I have had a blog recently published by the Center for Financial Inclusion website, he encouragingly confirmed his commitment to writing the “lessons for practice” paper. He noted that he, like so many of us, is subject to the demands of donors and doesn’t always get to do what he wants to right away. He also joked that he was uncomfortable with the ways that I had complimented him. (When I told Tim that someone had cautioned me against writing that my initial opinion of him was that he was “contrarian and pugnacious,” he smiled and said, “That’s the part I liked !”) I suppose that final point underscores that I really don’t understand researchers. Perhaps in time I will better comprehend what makes them tick.
In any event, I think it is important to underscore that while we may think about things differently and are subject to varying incentives, microfinance practitioners and researchers are on the same team fighting the same fundamental problem.