Friday, December 4, 2009

In Defense of Evidence in Law and Development

Reading through the 3-part colloquium on the future of law and development, by Northwestern University has been a great pleasure. Anyone who hasn’t taken some time to review these essays should.

In addition to providing some insights into this community, (very important for us young'uns), it was great to see the variety of views presented by so many law and development scholars from different institutions and traditions. I was particularly struck by Mariana Prado’s exploration about the utility of adopting a ‘what works’ approach to law and development. While I believe her contribution rightly points to some complications inherent in this approach, I am not so sure about the “what works” definition she presents.

While speaking about “what works” is certainly not new, as I understand it, recent explorations focus on applying more experimental research methodologies used in education and health to development. In this way, one can replace the inconsistent and theoretically limited approach to existing practice with a model based on ‘evidence-based aid’ as presented in Fissman & Miguel’s 2008 offering Economic Gangsters. On this view the use of evidence can replace the past practice of privileging tool kits or traditional managerial approaches to law and development. By gathering evidence of what works the development community can more easily support, disseminate, and integrate law and development lessons learned though past projects. This would allow evidence and not ideology to influence institutions and organizations that today are too often concerned with the pursuit of unproven policies based on unreasonable expectations and unrealistic time-lines.

Whatever the definitional disagreements, I do not mean to undermine the force of Prado’s critique. Her concern that this approach may result in the attempt to replicate successes in very different social, economic, cultural, or political environments is well placed. In addition what one calls evidence may also be of deep concern. While social and economic indicators can be useful, more robust measures of project success are needed. These must include the views of the people on the ground for whom various reforms are purportedly designed. To these concerns, one might add the very serious challenge that only a fraction of projects that currently receive aid could be subject to trials. While the debate about what constitutes evidence is on going, attempting to use what evidence exists and investing in research programs moving forward should not be.

The issue I take is with Prado’s final comment that focusing on a "what works" or evidence-based approach might somehow result in the co-optation of scholars by those who favor simplistic fixes for complex problems. This to me is exactly backward and points to one of the major challenges for academics who seek to engage with and not simply comment on the world around them. The time for hand wringing on the sidelines is over. Without developing and disseminating scholarly evidence to allow policy makers and practitioners to make better-informed decisions, scholars risk further irrelevance. By exploring existing approaches, analyzing their outcomes, and most importantly developing and testing different methodological approaches, those of us interested in law and development can better study projects operating at the intersection of the past, present, and future.

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