Harvard Kennedy School Professor Rema Hanna has launched an ambitious study of the thousands of social protection programs created around the world to mitigate the economic and social hardships of the COVID pandemic.

Featuring Rema Hanna
35 minutes and 01 seconds

With the COVID-19 pandemic came massive economic and social disruption. People couldn’t work, and there were widespread closures of businesses, schools, and other social institutions. Governments and relief organizations leapt into action, and by last May more than 220 countries or territories had either planned or implemented more than 3,000 new social protection programs. Social protection refers to policies and programs that insulate people against the risks and shocks of life—like COVID, natural disasters, and economic downturns—but that also provide ongoing financial assistance to low-income families and work to break poverty cycles. Harvard Kennedy School Professor Rema Hanna, a development economist, sees those thousands of new programs not just as a lifeline for desperate people, but also as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study which kinds of social protection schemes work better than others and how research-based policies can address intractable problems like poverty and inequity into the future. To that end, Hanna recently launched the Social Protection Initiative, a project that will involve hundreds of academics and researchers across the globe.

Episode Notes:

Rema Hanna is the Jeffrey Cheah Professor of South-East Asia Studies and chair of the International Development Area at the Harvard Kennedy School. She also serves as the faculty director of Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) at Harvard University’s Center for International Development and is the co-scientific director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) South East Asia Office in Indonesia. In addition, Professor Hanna is a research associate with the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) and an affiliate of the Bureau for Research and Economic Analysis of Development (BREAD).

Her research revolves around improving the provision of public services in developing and emerging nations, particularly for the very poor. She combines economic theory, qualitative field work, extensive data collection, and cutting-edge empirical analysis to offer insights into how governments function and how they can do better. Part of her work focuses on how to improve overall service delivery, as well as understanding the impacts of corruption, bureaucratic absenteeism, and discrimination against disadvantaged minority groups on delivery outcomes. She is particularly interested in how governments can improve and strengthen social protection, tax collection, and environmental safety.

Prior to joining the Harvard Kennedy School, Hanna was an assistant professor of Public Policy and Economics at New York University. She holds a PhD in Economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a BS from Cornell University with Honors and Distinction.

Ralph Ranalli of the HKS Office of Public Affairs and Communications is the host, producer, and editor of HKS PolicyCast. A former journalist, public television producer, and entrepreneur, he holds an AB in Political Science from UCLA and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University.

The co-producer of PolicyCast is Susan Hughes. Design and graphics support is provided by Lydia Rosenberg, Delane Meadows and the OCPA Design Team. Social media promotion and support is provided by Natalie Montaner and the OCPA Digital Team.

For more information please visit our webpage or contact us at PolicyCast@hks.harvard.edu.

This episode is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts.

Rema Hanna (Intro): When you think about the safety net programs, one big difference is that in the US we have a small fraction of the population that's in informal work. And they are very vulnerable, but it's very small. But for a lot of countries, many people are in informal work. So there's no paper trail of incomes. Very few people are in the tax system. So in Indonesia, 85% of the people are not captured by the tax system. So it's not like you could do an earned income tax credit like we do in the US through the tax system. So you don't really know people's income to figure out who needs assistance. And so that's a key challenge to start with of even, just, who are the people who need help? And how do we find them and how do we set up systems in place?

Ralph Ranalli (Intro): Welcome to the Harvard Kennedy School PolicyCast. I’m your host, Ralph Ranall. In 1990, there were an estimated 1.9 billion people around the globe living in extreme poverty. Thirty years later that number had fallen by nearly two-thirds. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which not only stopped the downward trend but in less than two years plunged an estimated 150 million people back into extreme hardship. The pandemic’s upheaval also galvanized governments and relief organizations to leap into action, launching thousands of new initiatives broadly defined as social protection programs. Social protection refers to policies and programs that insulate people against the risks and shocks of life—like COVID, natural disasters, and economic downturns—but that also provide ongoing financial assistance to low-income families and work to break poverty cycles. Harvard Kennedy School Professor Rema Hanna, a development economist, sees those thousands of new programs not just as a lifeline for desperate people, but also as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study which kinds of social protection schemes work better than others and how research-based policies can address intractable problems like poverty and inequity into the future. Hanna, who is the faculty director of the Evidence for Policy Design program at the Kennedy School, recently launched the Social Protection Initiative, a project that will involve hundreds of academics and researchers across the globe. She’s here with me today.

Ralph Ranalli: Rema, thank you so much for being here on PolicyCast.

Rema Hanna: Thank you for inviting me.

Ralph Ranalli: So with the pandemic came massive economic and social disruption. People couldn't work. There were widespread closures, of not just businesses, but also schools and other social institutions. So it didn't really surprise me to learn that in response we've had this explosion of what you call social protection programs. And that by last May, make sure I got this right, over 220 countries or territories had either planned or implemented more than 3,000 social protection measures in response to the pandemic. So you have this new venture, the Social Protection Initiative. Can we just start with, what's the definition of what social protection programs are? And who's involved with your new effort to study them?

Rema Hanna: Okay. Oh, thank you. That's an interesting question. It's interesting, there's different organizations, so different countries, the World Bank, the UN, everybody has a slightly different definition of social protection. But for me, it generally is about two main factors. One, about getting the poor up to a basic living standard. And two, helping people manage their risk, because you might also be worried that somebody comes out of poverty and then you fall ill or you lose your job and you can get knocked back into it. So it's about helping people stay out of poverty in the end. And so there's different programs to try to achieve these goals. And they mostly fall into about three different buckets. One of the buckets is about safety net programs. And so that might be that we give a basic cash transfer to poor households to get them over a certain basic living standard. It might be giving households food or other kinds of goods. This second kind is a social insurance program. For example, in the US we there's subsidized health insurance programs, Medicare, Medicaid. There are pension programs.

Ralph Ranalli: Social Security.

Rema Hanna: Social Security, all of these kinds of programs that are helping people basically manage risks from health shocks versus risk at different parts of the life cycle and so forth. And then the third are kind of more active labor market programs, which are kind of connected to the two, but it might include, when we think about it, minimum wage programs. It might be helping retrain workers, who are from industries that are dying off, into newer industries, helping them transition. And so it's like the wage subsidy programs. So it's a number of different programs that are also connected to risk of income.

Ralph Ranalli: So the Social Protection Initiative, that's a collaboration between evidence for policy design, which is at the Harvard Kennedy School and J-PAL, which is the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab. Can you talk a little bit about that collaboration and how that came about?

Rema Hanna: Oh, yeah. So for many years I've worked with Benjamin Olken, who's one of the faculty directors at J-PAL, on different research projects. In fact, I was in my last year of grad school and he was a postdoc many, many years ago. And we started working on projects together in this space. And yeah, a lot of the projects we were working on were in Indonesia, although before the pandemic, we were also working on some projects in India and Pakistan. And we worked on different aspects of social protection in Indonesia. We were working a lot on the targeting of programs. How do you find the right people to provide assistance to? We were working on transparency within the programs. How do you make sure people are getting their entitlement? We were working on provisions, should it be publicly or privately provided, or to improve the efficiency of the programs? And we've been working on our little studies for many years. 

And then the pandemic hit. We just got so many requests from different country governments in terms of talking with partners at organizations like the World Bank about, what does the evidence say in terms of social protection programs in countries of different income levels and how should they look differently? What do we know? What do we don't know? How can we use this to think about this rapid expansion of social protection that was happening during the pandemic? For us, we were taking a step back. We were trying to think about things from a bigger picture. And we realized that over the last 10, 15 years, there's been an explosion of research. And we wanted to try to think about, how do we bring the evidence together? But also think about open questions and where the research should go next. And that was sort of the impetus for the initiative.

Ralph Ranalli: I mean, it's obviously unfortunate that it happened. But for a researcher, the pandemic is just this wealth of data points that you didn't necessarily have access to before. I mean, it is a really interesting time to be doing this work. I mean, obviously, it's very important. And the stakes are so much higher because of the pandemic. But right before the pandemic, you had the Nobel Prize awarded to economists who were using randomized controlled trials to study the effects of development policies, particularly on poverty. J-PAL was co-founded by Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee. And Michael Kremer also won the Nobel Prize. And he was at Harvard before he went to UChicago. Can you talk a little bit about this, how everything's kind of come together at this moment in time?

Rema Hanna: Oh, God, that's a heavy question. I think this moment in time, for me, it's been a very rough two years to see what's happening in the world and it's pretty scary. We've gone from a world where we've been seeing massive declines in poverty over the last 20, 30 years. Extreme poverty going down, incomes going up, increasing tax capacity of emerging economies, which is allowing their governments to do more. We were seeing just change. And then the pandemic hit and other factors as well. It's not just the pandemic. It's also the war in Ukraine with wheat prices. A lot of countries get their wheat and fertilizers from that region. So there's a lot of things happening right now. We're seeing increases in poverty again, which we haven't seen. We are seeing governments now strapped for cash, at a time when they need to do more to help their citizens, because the economies are going down at the same time. And so it's this time, that it's really saying that it's just so important to be thinking about, how can we use what resources we have, the best we can, to make sure that people are taken care of and they're protected?

And I think for me, that's where this initiative is coming from. It's basically saying, "There is all this new data out there and these new methodologies for examining whether or not policies and programs are working, and figuring out what's cost effective. And can you make the program work better?" You have limited resources and there's two different programs to achieve the goal. What is the best way to do it? Which program is the better way? And trying to use this information to help us do better when we have limited resources and the need is greater. And so I think, for me, that's how it's coming together.

Ralph Ranalli: Right. And you talked before, in general, about the different types of these kinds of programs. But I was watching you in a recent forum that you were participating in. And you said there's been some amazing creativity in response to this huge need in the crises that are out there. In this creativity in terms of creating programs, can you give me a couple examples of things that you think are creative approaches that there are definitely lessons to be learned from?

Rema Hanna: I can give you a few. For example, I'll give you one from Indonesia that I know well. There was a huge problem of, how do you find who was hit by the pandemic and who needs assistance? And doing it in a flexible way. So it might be that I'm hit this month because a family member is ill and can't work for three months. But then three months from now, somebody else is hit. And you needed a flexible way to find people and get assistance out to them. And a big challenge is that normally, to do this, there are databases. And every couple of years you go in and collect who's poor and not poor based on their assets and demographics. And that's totally out of date now with the pandemic and so many changes happening. And it gets you part of the way there. But then how do you find the people who are missing from that list, who suddenly need assistance? And so we had done some research on trying to bring in more flexibility in the system by having communities come together and identify who needs assistance. And so the government of Indonesia realized that they had these block grants to villages where money was already going there. And gave them the tools to do so, where they said, "Look, you could take some of the funds from the block grants. So the money's already there, and give them out quickly as individual grants using this community-based approach to find the people missing from the list." And they expanded social protection very quickly to about 8 million households. I think two and a half million of them were single-female headed households, just people who really needed assistance, but were not necessarily captured by the system. I mean, other countries have thought of using digital technologies, both in terms of allowing people to sign up, for example, through text messaging. I think Pakistan was innovating a lot there. This hastened a move to digital transfers, because we were also trying to prevent people from descending on banks or post offices to get cash or to get goods and instead, trying to think about how do you set up digital bank accounts for people and get resources in their hands that way? So I think there was a lot of creativity going on to try to figure out how to adjust the programs that were there to be more flexible in the moment. And I think there's a lot to learn from that as we start seeing other shocks that come our way. Climate shocks, for example, is another one that's going to create a lot of uncertainty, is already creating a lot of uncertainty, and how can our systems be more adaptive to these kind of shocks.

Ralph Ranalli: Right. And I think one of the questions you said you're trying to answer is how do you design programs that sort of do two things at once? One is to sort of smooth out the daily life and lift people out of poverty to where they can break those poverty cycles, but also, that's kind of nimble and responsive to these shocks that just seem to keep on coming these days. How do you do that? How do you do that? Is that a question you have yet to answer or you're hoping for an answer?

Rema Hanna: No, that's a question that I think we need more on. So some countries have very little safety net. I mean, they'll have a program that might give a cash transfer to the systematic poor, for example. Or they might have programs that are for formal workers, but not informal workers in the country. I think a lot of countries have partial coverage. Or they have so many different programs and nobody knows how to apply for them and that's driving a lack of coverage. And I think it's about trying to think about how there are different people are going to have different needs in terms of programs. It's not going to be one fits all. How do we find, what are the most effective types of programs for these needs given the institutions, given what markets look like in the country, given the local context? And trying to think through, what is the right mix of programs? And how do we make sure the right people get access to the right programs? And I think that's where, first starting with, well, what do we know about the programs? When are they most effective, less effective? What are they doing? Who are they most effective for? Trying to think about the evidence separately by programs and then trying to think about it more holistically is really important.

Ralph Ranalli: And, I guess, you're trying to answer the customization question, too, which is how do you customize programs for a culture, for a country, for differences in just who the beneficiaries are? What have we learned so far about that from the pandemic? And what questions do you think on that are still out there to be answered?

Rema Hanna: That's a good question. I think both from the body of knowledge before the pandemic, and then also seeing things through the pandemic, you kind of realize there are things that are universal. So, for example, we have good research from lots of different countries. When you give out cash transfers, the amount of money of this particular size that we're typically giving out in these welfare programs, people are not... They're no... It's not that they stop working. It's not that they are buying cigarettes and alcohol. What you are seeing is basically they're working, or they're unable to work, for some. But if a majority are working and they just don't earn enough money and it's helping them top up their income, you see it going into nutrition. You see kids much better off. So I think there are some things that we're learning that are truly universal, because we've seen research happening in lots of different countries. I think there's other things that we just don't know how to make them work in some countries and not others. And we're still figuring it out. But to be honest, for me, customization's really important, but, as I said, income level and institutions and all of this, but there's also a lot of people are people, and their needs are very similar. For me, one of the most interesting part of the pandemic was that all of the kind of topics and questions that I work on were suddenly really relevant to the US. Everybody was talking about the fiscal stimulus and the cash transfers, and should it be targeted? And if it's targeted, how is it targeted? Do you used data from last year's tax returns? Is that too old? Is there a new database to use? And then talking about fraud and how do you make sure people are getting their transfer? And transparency of the systems. Or even applications for unemployment insurance, and websites crashing, and the technology not being right for the people. These are all the questions I work on. And you realize how universal it is all over the world.

Ralph Ranalli: Right. It wasn't some problem happening over in Indonesia anymore. It's happening right here. Well, I'm glad you brought that up, because one aspect of this that has always intrigued me and still does, and especially so after I read an article you wrote called, The Myth of Welfare Dependency, is this role of cynicism and prejudice in making social protection policy. Like you said, there's this really pervasive school of thought that you're incentivizing idleness and freeloading and it's creating dependency. And that results in programs being cut and access to programs being restricted. And also, this kind of malicious neglect where either inflation erodes the benefits or legislation is allowed to expire. And we just had that in the US. We had the child tax credit, which all the analysts said, "Look at this amazing thing. It cut child poverty in the US by 30%." But yet, Congress let it expire. And there were reports that one Senator, who was a key Senator, had said privately to colleagues he thought that the people who were getting it were going to use the money to buy drugs. The other interesting thing actually about this, was also that you wrote that these beliefs aren't just limited to rich people, but they also can be shared by the very people who these programs are trying to help. And so no wonder they translate into policy. If this is a myth, like the title of your piece says, why is it so pervasive?

Rema Hanna: I wish I had the answer to that question. In some ways, maybe economics. I'm an economist. Maybe we're to blame. We talk about, you give people cash, you're going to buy more leisure. And, I guess, you give them enough cash, you're going to buy enough leisure. And the theory is there. But we also know that there's two aspects. One, there's how big is the magnitude of the effect? And two, you give people cash, they can also use it to enter the labor market, or start a business, or invest in kids, or do all sorts of other things. And so maybe it's that some of the basic messages of economics, people hear the basics and don't hear the nuances. Or, I don't know. But it is very pervasive. And in fact, it's interesting, that paper you mentioned, the reason why we wrote it is because that was the most common thing we heard from citizens, from governments, but even people in government, who were working for these programs, raising these issues. And we wanted to know. And we wanted to bring evidence to the topic. And we wanted to bring evidence from lots of different countries, because rather than just a piece here or a piece there, really trying to think about it systematically. And if you look at the work we've done and the work that others have done, and you see it time and time again, you're not seeing these huge labor market effects. And if anything, you're seeing really big effects on children. Some of my own work, the anti-poverty programs in Indonesia that I've studied, have reduced child stunting. They're keeping kids in school longer. These are things that... Helping us trying to start to a little bit leveling the playing field, and so...

Ralph Ranalli: Can you talk a little bit more about that child stunting aspect of that? Because I read that and I thought that was remarkable. What was that finding about the stunted growth of children and the effect that these cash transfers had?

Rema Hanna: So we studied a program called PKH in Indonesia. I'm going to detour for a little. I'll give you a little bit of history. So many, many years ago in Mexico, they were cutting fuel subsidies. And they weren't wanting to increase cash transfers to poor households, to compensate for them and help get them up to basic living standards. And someone came up with a great idea of, "Well, let's condition it on making their kids go to school and their kids get healthcare." And in some ways, it goes back to the point you were making before, it was a great political way of saying, "This is not just a cash program. This is getting people to invest in their kids." And there was a randomized control trial. In fact, one of the first randomized control trials in emerging and developing countries of social protection outside the US, because there'd been a lot in the '80s and stuff in the US. And it showed very good effects. And this program, this conditional cash transfer program, got expanded. And many countries around the world now have it. And what was interesting is because they were kind of following the progressive program and it had a randomized control trial, many countries around the world also had one. So we have really great evidence from many, many countries that these programs work. And so in Indonesia they had launched the conditional cash transfer program, PKH, and in fact, the conditions are, they're kind of let's say, loose on enforcement, because it's very difficult to enforce these things. So it's very much a cash transfer program. And it's a long-term cash transfer program. So it's not just meant to give you cash in this month, if you lose your jobs. It's meant to say, "Let's find the poorest of the poor, so the bottom 6 or 7% of the country, that are super, super in need. And let's just help them for many years to make sure their kids get up to a basic living standard." And so to give them cash.

And also, there are social workers in the villages that are supposed to give advice and also enforce the conditions. And so there was a randomized control trial done. And we decided, working actually with the government of Indonesia, they really wanted to understand the median term effects of this program. So, let's say, 6 to 8 years later. And so they contacted us and we started working with them and to analyze the effects of this. And what was very interesting is that if you looked at two years, you don't really see an effective stunting. But we had a hypothesis that stunting is something that's not just like, I give you food today and your weight increases a little. But it's a cumulative effect of the program. And that's why this program is so interesting, because it's giving cash over many years. So then we looked at what happened six years later when you have kids who are on this program from when their mothers were pregnant and through early childhood and that's where the results really come in. And so for us, it's very interesting program design in some sense, because it's meant to say, "We know early childhood is just so important for kids. And we need to just do something systematic through that period." And you really see really good results.

Ralph Ranalli: So you have differences not only in different countries and different cultures, but there's also differences between low and middle-income countries and richer countries when you're adopting these social protection schemes and designing them. And low and middle-income countries have really become a big part of this story now. How is it different working in those countries than it is, even though, like you said, we're having to confront these issues in the United States, how is it different in those low and middle-income countries?

Rema Hanna: So I think it's many of the same issues, but it's magnified. And then I should also note, so I tend to work in emerging economies, so not the poorest of the poor, but rich enough to be able to have a tax base, to be able to deliver these kind of programs and institutional capacity to do so. Well, there's a few key differences. So for example, when you think about the safety net programs, one big difference is that in the US, and this goes to social insurance as well, I think one of the big differences that in the US, we have a small fraction of the population that's in informal work. And they are very vulnerable. But it's very small. But for a lot of countries, many people are in informal work. So there's no paper trail of incomes. Very few people are in the tax system. So in Indonesia, it's 85% of the people are not captured by the tax system. So it's not like you could do an earned income tax credit like we do in the US through the tax system. So you don't really know people's income to figure out who needs assistance. And so that's a key challenge to start with of even just, who are the people who need help? And how do we find them? And how do we set up systems in place? Another issue where this informality comes into play is how we deliver benefits. So for example, in the US, we talked about Social Security and we talked about health insurance. A lot of these things are mandated through employers. And so if you try to do that in an emerging country and you say you're going to mandate employers have to contribute to health insurance and the government will subsidize it and social security, that's a small fraction of the workforce. And it's not going to be everybody. There's worry that if you add more taxes they'll have a greater incentive to hire people informally. And so you worry that you might encourage more informalization. So you're trying to think about that margin as well.

And so I think there's a lot of issues that make this challenging that come from institutional capacity. But also in the nature of labor markets. And then the last thing I'll note is really funding. And I think this is where, for me, this is, it's just incredibly sad. During the pandemic you have countries like the US spend a fairly large fraction of GDP to make sure everybody was protected through the pandemic. And you couldn't complain. Maybe it was too much. Maybe it was too little. Everybody has a different thought. But for the most part, we made a big attempt to try to make sure that people were, safe. For a lot of countries, tax capacity is low. It's difficult to borrow. Everybody's hit by the shock at the same time. The funding is not necessarily there, so even programs where governments came in and were able to think about ways to expand the programs, they didn't necessarily have the money to really expand them the way they should have. And I think it's going to get worse, because I think we're not out of the financial crisis. As I said at the beginning, it's even things like Ukraine that are going to make food shortages worse. And at the same time, governments are strapped for cash, because tax collections have been down. And they've been doing an increase in spending to begin with. And it's hard to borrow. And so all these things are coming together that make it really challenging. Really, it makes it so important to be thinking about, how do you best spend the money you have to make it most effective and make sure that people are okay?

Ralph Ranalli: Can you build other social and, I don't know, maybe administrative benefits into these programs on issues like connecting low-income households to institutions? I mean, it's a bridge. That money's got to go across a bridge. And can you formalize that bridge to make a connection there? Or design a program in a way that might help with climate resiliency or gender equity? How do you do that?

Rema Hanna: No, that's another big question that everybody spends a lot of time pondering. I think this is where basic structures and systems help. When we think about, for example, a lot of the cash transfer programs, one of the things that these types of programs are doing are even creating a list of who is in the country and getting out IDs. And getting a sense of income level and needs. And that's a lot of really rich information. And then also once you have access points to people, you can also think about layering on additional different types of programs. And so for example, in these cash transfer programs, they're often putting social workers in place in the villages to help manage the program. And they can also provide assistance in other ways. And so we could start thinking about cutting across other needs. I think, for me, this is an oldie-but-goody, one of the most cost-cutting kind of program is something like school nutrition programs for low-income students, which is taking account of school infrastructure to help handle another need. But also, at the same time, a lot of these school feeding programs also help improve enrollment. And so it's trying to think about how we could do things in a more cost-cutting way, I think is really important. And is the way also we optimize the resources we have.

Ralph Ranalli: Like you said, you only have so much money and you have to use your resources efficiently to get where you want to go. Aside from the big world crises that we're going through, and as if that weren't enough, what are the other potential headwinds out there to making advances in these programs? One that comes to my mind is sort of the rise in authoritarianism around the globe, where the authoritarians adopt populous rhetoric about Us versus Them. And the Them is often the people who benefit from social protection. What do you see as really the headwinds that are going to have to be overcome to really make a leap forward in providing these kind of social protections?

Rema Hanna: So the rise of more authoritarian governments worries me. I think with a lot of these programs, one thing you need is information. And you need information on people who are vulnerable. And I think one fear I have is that as people are collecting this kind of data, you can have an authoritarian government, or even an elected government, that's more populous using information about minority groups in ways to exclude. And I think that's something we've seen in countries. So that's one thing that really scares me.

I do think climate change is another one. There is more uncertainty, particularly in many countries around the world that are very engaged in agriculture. And I think that's another one that we're going to have to think deeply about and really think about how to make our social protection account for that. Relating back to authoritarianism, I do think if there is an increase in war and supply chain issues and that we're seeing in the world today, I think that's another one. But even with all the bad things in the world, it feels like every day that something bad is happening, but even without... I mean, countries go through periods of growth and recession. And even within countries, there are industries that are changing over time and ones that are growing and ones that are declining. And there are some people who, for example, maybe you were disabled, and it is very difficult to work, there's going to be a whole host of reasons why society needs to be thinking about how to make sure that everybody's protected. It's just such a challenging task to begin with. And then you factor in all these other things and it is daunting.

Ralph Ranalli: How is the research project going to work? Who's going to be doing the research? How are you going to be sort of getting them on board? What's the time horizon before you're hoping to have some real meaty and actionable research conclusions?

Rema Hanna: Oh, yeah. So, no, this is a great question. So let me take a little bit of a step back. So we've launched an initiative now officially, yay, with some startup funds from the Australian government and from a private foundation. And we're looking to raise more, because we do want to expand and grow. We want the initiative to have several pieces. So first of all, what we're starting right now is working on a whitepaper. There's been a lot of research done. And we want to bring it together and synthesize and say, "What do we know? What patterns do we already see? And what do we know? And what can we start recommending? But we also want to understand, what do we don't know?" We have a lot of experience from working with different governments. We've been starting to reach out to different people who were either in government before in different countries, or are currently in government, asking their views of on what do they need to know? And we're trying to merge the two to really think about, well, what are the kind of projects we should be doing? So we already have preliminary results from that. I'm hoping very soon, because it's more of a synthesis and trying-to-put-things-together exercise. And then we're using that as the basis for funding competitions, where researchers can apply to do more research in this area. And that will guide the kind of projects we fund. And in fact, the whitepaper will be made public. So people will know what are the open questions and can use that in terms of thinking about where research should go next. And so it's really about trying to say, "This is an area where there's been lots of research already done." It's very concentrated in certain topics and less concentrated in others. We see a lot on cash transfers. You see less on parental leave in the developing world. So trying to think about what we know, what we don't know. And then really trying to push forward the frontiers to the kind questions policy makers. So we're very ambitious right now. I hope we'll get there.

Ralph Ranalli: But there are challenges to gathering research during COVID.

Rema Hanna: Yeah. When COVID first hit, I put my projects on pause and eventually, canceled a lot of projects. So I do a lot of field research. So I was very worried about community spread, sending surveyors door to door. It's also, for me, it's all about people and relationships and learning from them, learning what the needs are. And so I spend a lot of time talking to people. So for example, I do a lot of work in Indonesia. I spend time there just listening and collaborating with people. And that's very challenging when we haven't been able to travel and everything's closed and everybody's trying to talk on Zoom, but it's not the same. And so I do think it's been very difficult if you're very engaged in the world of policy and really trying to think about how to build research and evidence mechanisms. And it's been very challenging. On the other hand, I must say, also, there's a weird motivation of just seeing how important the evidence was and feeling like I can't contribute much and make things better, but I can contribute a little. And I can try based on the work we're doing. And there was also something of feeling a little less hopeless during these really difficult times because of that.

Ralph Ranalli: When you have the evidence that you really think can move the needle, what are you hoping to achieve with that? In your fondest hopes, what do you think you can achieve?

Rema Hanna: I hope to be part of the debate. There's an old timey version of, you're going to swoop in and do some research. And then suddenly, all the policy makers are going to listen to you and do X and there it goes! And I think that's not reality. And you wouldn't want reality to do that. You want people to figure out what's right for them and the trade offs they're making across different programs and policies. And citizens are voting and determining what kind of programs they even want. It's complex and it's crazy, this whole thing of policy making. And I think, for me, being part of the debate, bringing evidence into the debate, helping people evaluate the evidence, is this good evidence? Is this bad evidence? What does it mean for my setting? Maybe this is good evidence, but it's not right for my context. Or maybe it's good for my context, but the evidence is bad. And what kind of data am I sitting on that could be used to make better decisions? And for me, it's really just trying to be part of the conversation.

Ralph Ranalli: Well, obviously, this is hugely important work that affects not only us here, but everyone around the world. So wish you the best of luck. And I hope you don't mind if at some point down the line, we circle back and check in with you again to see how it's going.

Rema Hanna: No, that would be really wonderful. Thank you.

Ralph Ranalli: Thanks for being here.

Ralph Ranalli (Outro): Thanks for listening. Please join me four our next episode, when my guest will be Harvard Kennedy School Dani Rodrik. We’ll talk about possible alternatives of globalism and neoliberalism, the flaws of which are being laid bare by the upheaval from the COVID pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And if you would like to make a comment, ask a question, or suggest a topic for an upcoming episode, please drop us a line at policycast at H-K-S dot harvard dot E-D-U.