Rema Hanna is the Jeffrey Cheah Professor of South-East Asia Studies and chair of the International Development Area at Harvard Kennedy School. She 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) Southeast Asia Office in Indonesia. Professor Hanna is also the faculty chair of the Leading Smart Policy Design: A Multisectoral Approach to Economic Decisions executive program.
As an expert in improving the provision of public services in developing and emerging nations, particularly for the very poor, can you share a bit more about the current priorities in the field today?
The COVID-19 crisis has emphasized the need to find newly vulnerable populations and identify the best way to include them in policy programs. For example, my work focuses on social protections, and one of the important descriptive facts about the COVID-19 pandemic was that the definition for the type of people that we traditionally think of as vulnerable changed. This is in part because the pandemic affected some types of industries, such as hospitality and service industries, more than others. When a country faces budget constraints, much of the budget for poverty relief is focused on the bottom of the pyramid. However, COVID-19 severely hit middle-class households in urban areas, which required figuring out the households most affected to so they could get help.
How has COVID-19 affected the way that we should think about economic policy, use of data, and development more broadly?
Continuing with that example, many governments are using data to tap into these vulnerable populations – by capturing all segments of a population in the data, one can give a voice to people who might not otherwise have a voice. Data and evidence can be very powerful tools in building trust and thinking through policy decisions when policymakers know how to work with data and evidence, and when they know how to ask questions about what data is needed and how to collect it in an informative and helpful way.
As countries shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, it became critical to think about what kind of data and evidence one can get in real time. Conditions were changing every day, and at the same time, it became harder for policymakers to travel across states, or to implement face-to-face surveys, to get data on changes for citizens in rural areas. Often, the data systems provide a very static picture, so policymakers became more creative in terms of collecting data.
The faculty and researchers at Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) have been working with policymakers to think about flexible and adaptive systems that can generate data in real time as they face the ongoing ramifications of the COVID-19 crisis. A lot of countries have creatively pivoted to administrative data, which requires a new set of tools to really analyze and understand these big data sets. Moving forward, I think we will continue looking at these administrative datasets use, for example, cell phone records, or banking records, that became much more common during the pandemic, especially as we move toward recovery.
What are some of the challenges you see for using data?
People see evidence as a certainty. There's a number and it will tell you the right decision to make. And in some cases, that will be true, and the evidence might give you an answer, or at least point you in a specific direction. But often the evidence is ambiguous. Your decisions depend on your goals and the needs of your citizens. When there is not a one size fits all solution, the data can help navigate trade-offs. It can help you assess how to target different policies and programs to different groups, different populations.
That uncertainty around data speaks to the fact that if you want to be a part of the policy debate these days, you need to be comfortable thinking about and interpreting data. You need to understand the techniques that are being used to generate and analyze data. And most importantly, you need to be able to ask hard questions about the data to make sure that you are getting the information necessary for policy decisions.
At EPoD, we use the “Smart Policy Design and Implementation” (SPDI) framework to work with policymakers to diagnose underlying drivers of the challenge and then design, implement, and evaluate solutions to address that specific pain point. Because data can often be ambiguous, we also use economic theory to help frame the problem, and to consider tradeoffs. We encourage policymakers to use economic theory and deep qualitative work to assess the policy problems being faced and to understand what is driving these problems.
You have taught HKS graduate students about Evidence for Policy Design’s SPDI framework for many years – what prompted you to design your first executive education program, around that framework, Leading Smart Policy Design?
Originally, I envisioned this program as being more heavily focused on the SPDI framework, which guides a lot of my research and work with policymakers. However, as I talked to policymakers about recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, our conversation would branch into many different topics from macroeconomics and trade to social protections and labor policy. You can read more about SPDI and how I used it in Indonesia here.
Evaluation is extremely powerful and useful because it can guide resources to the most productive uses of the money that you're putting out the door. It's only now, after many years and millions of dollars being spent, that a lot of rigorous evidence has been generated testing out these programs and finding out that they don't deliver the kind of success that we hoped. Research can help shape the design of policy and help us use our limited resources more wisely.
Most courses focus on one topic area, such as public financial management, rather than sharing the latest evidence across a range of connected topics. I therefore wanted to bring in experts across many areas while challenging the students to consider how each perspective might tie into their problem diagnosis and policy solution during the SPDI groupwork exercises, but it’s often very connected. The Leading Smart Policy Design program will give opportunities to take the latest theory and bring it to bear some of the answers to these challenges.
What can participants expect to take away from the program?
One of the aspects of this course that I’m most excited is the group work. We have some phenomenal teaching fellows, Harvard Kennedy School students, who are working with participants in small group-work activities. These small groups will apply the SPDI framework to a real challenge of their choosing. And through that exercise, participants will engage in the material and contribute to the debates. I want everyone to leave this program with an understanding of how tools and policy frameworks can really be used for their own work. In the end, all we care about is improving policy more generally.
We’re really excited to bring in some groups that are all attending from one single organization or institution, or even groups of people that are cross-collaborating on a problem. It is so valuable for people to take advantage of this space at Harvard, even virtually, where people are free to engage with ideas in a focused way and have dedicated time to work on a problem they are trying to solve in their daily work. We find that the structured SPDI approach gains a lot of traction in organizations when multiple people have been exposed to the framework and can start testing new ideas out together.