DfID on building evidence and 'failing quickly'

By Molly Anders 28 October 2016

Charlotte Watts, chief technology adviser at the U.K. Department for International Development. Photo by: REACH / CC BY

Charlotte Watts, chief technology adviser at the U.K. Department for International Development has some tips for innovators and organizations about failure, building evidence and avoiding the pitfalls of innovation.

Watts, who worked with DfID’s global health programs and helps lead the donor’s work guiding ideas to scale, spoke at the this week’s 2016 Grand Challenges annual meeting in London where she outlined advice to innovators and organizations looking for funding. The comments are particularly salient in an era in which donors such as DfID favor robust evidence and yet simultaneously aspire to take on more risk.

“You need some … convincing evidence to be able to describe concretely not only the achievement in what you developed but also what impact that will provide in changing people’s lives,” she told meeting participants.

Watts said innovators must go beyond standard tools such as randomized control trials in order to get as close as possible to understanding the impact on target beneficiaries. “I think it’s only by doing that that you can really make the case to bring in other partners to come on board and support your ambition to scale,” she said.

Watts pointed to the struggle she faces at DfID in packing the health pipeline with great ideas while maintaining a generous expectation for failure, then moving on quickly once those lessons are learned.

Responding to a question from Devex about the challenges when selecting and scaling innovations at DfID, Watts said her greatest lessons came from working on product development partnerships — a financing mechanism that sources expertise and funding from public, private and academic sectors. The challenge she sees time and again, she said, is building evidence.

“Make sure you’re trying to get evidence on the right question. So if it’s evidence on impact, use robust methods, create partnerships with people who know how to get those impact estimates well,” she said, recommending academia as a strong partner first and foremost.

She pointed to the DfID investment in cellphone-based technology to increase access to solar power, M-KOPA. “Our research question was, ‘What’s the model of scale?’ And testing models of scale, so we knew that’s the evidence that we needed,” she said.

Watts, who has also served as head of the Social and Mathematical Epidemiology Group and founder of the Gender, Violence and Health Center in the Department for Global Health and Development at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, drew on her own past experience with DfID-funded health projects.

“I worked on HIV and one of the failures early on for example was N9, a potential method women could use to protect themselves from HIV,” she said. “It didn’t work, but it went to quite large-scale trials before that was found, so we just need to make sure that we learn those failures quickly.”

Finally, Watts shared her concerns about formalizing and innovating evidence-gathering in the era of the Sustainable Development Goals. Given the numerous targets, she said, it will be important to consider not just the impact on target beneficiaries. Watts pointed to the need for a formal way of tracking unexpected impacts across beneficiary groups, and “documenting the range of benefits our innovation might achieve, because that makes a much more compelling case to donors and governments,” she said.

As the development sector begins to implement and measure the SDGs, in other words, it may be time for donors to take a wider-angle view on methods for evidence-gathering.

For more U.K. news, views and analysis visit the Future of DfID series page, follow @devex on Twitter and tweet using the hashtag #FutureofDfID.

About the author

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Molly Andersmollyanders_dev

Molly is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in London, she covers U.K. foreign aid and trends in international development. She draws on her experience covering aid legislation and the USAID implementer community in Washington, D.C., as well as her time as a Fulbright Fellow and development practitioner in the Middle East to develop stories with insider analysis.


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