Opinion: Rely more on evidence in aid — not just during COVID-19

Health workers filling in the administered vaccine data at a health center in Afar, Ethiopia. Photo by: Tewodros Tadesse / UNICEF Ethiopia / CC BY-NC-ND

As we have seen from the pandemic, relying on evidence and data has made policy responses to global challenges significantly more targeted, efficient, and effective. Over the past year, advanced data modelling, research, and analysis shaped our understanding of the pandemic and allowed us to predict epidemiological trends and outcomes to deliver a targeted, effective public health response.

We should now replicate this approach across other development areas.

We are seeing governments, charities, and humanitarian organizations increasingly follow an evidence-led approach, where the decision on whether to fund a development program is based on a rigorous evaluation of that program’s effectiveness. It’s a positive trend, but the public health lessons from the pandemic response show that we need to double down on this approach by putting evidence and data at the heart of our responses to all global challenges.

For this to happen, we need to change our approach to solving pressing challenges. We need to fund new ways to collect and analyze data, which will enable leaders to take early decisions based on science so that resources can be allocated to support initiatives more quickly, efficiently, and effectively.

Ring-fencing government support for evidence in overseas aid

COVID-19’s economic impact is unprecedented, and we know public finances will be stretched for years to come. Just as fiscal tightening is leading to cuts in some overseas aid budgets, more than ever there will be scrutiny on how those public funds are spent and whether they are being spent smartly.

“An evidence-based approach can help governments deploy overseas aid effectively by supporting programs that are proven to work...”

By evaluating aid programs, understanding the results, and taking decisions on the basis of data — the evidence-driven approach — governments can achieve better outcomes in their programs and deliver greater value for money.

But conducting evaluations and converting output data into digestible policy advice — as we have seen firsthand through our partnership with the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab — is complex and requires its own funding.

We must therefore ensure that governments ring-fence the funding for the civil servants, academics, and research centers conducting this work. Without this, governments will not have the critical infrastructure necessary to adopt an evidence-led approach and ensure aid budgets are spent efficiently — which will prove crucial in demonstrating the importance of ongoing support to those in need.

Building data-led early warning systems for crises

An evidence-based approach can help governments deploy overseas aid effectively by supporting programs that are proven to work when tackling challenges like education, healthcare, and poverty — but what about in humanitarian and public health crises, like a pandemic? Here, early action is critically important, both in terms of saving lives and using funds effectively.

Alongside using evidence-based approaches to tackle problems after they have emerged, we must harness the power of data by building early warning systems that will allow us to act before disaster strikes or before problems worsen over time. These systems need to integrate multiple data sets, rely on complex models, and put out results quickly, drawing on advances in data analytics and artificial intelligence. Once developed, they can help forecast crises and inform responses in real-time, from famine and drought, to outbreaks of disease.

Using research and data analytics in this way can drive effective interventions. We have seen through our own collaboration with Imperial College London how quickly, and with what impact, the combination of data analytics, rapid reporting, and direct engagement with policymakers can deliver change on a global scale.

For instance, during the pandemic, Professor Neil Ferguson and his team at the Jameel Institute, as part of the Imperial COVID-19 Response Team, published their first report modelling the outbreak in Wuhan on January 17, 2020, and have since published more than 40 reports, informing public health policymaking worldwide based on real-time research.

Governments, philanthropists, and private donors must invest in the researchers who collect and analyze the evidence and data in these fields — to do so will allow us to act early and quickly, save lives, and deploy aid more effectively. Now is the time to double down and accelerate evidence-based and data-led policymaking across global development to have greater impact in a time of many needs.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • George Richards

    George Richards is the director of Community Jameel. Prior to becoming director in 2020, George led strategy for Community Jameel’s international programs from 2015, including the establishment of the MIT Jameel World Education Lab, and the MIT Jameel Clinic, the European Social Inclusion Initiative at J-PAL Europe, and the Transforming Refugee Education towards excellence program in Jordan with Save the Children and MIT J-WEL. He holds a first in Arabic and Persian from the University of Edinburgh.