Not too long ago, my colleague, Stephen Kidd, wrote a blog called ‘The debate in the World Bank on the Proxy Means Test hots up: or does it?’ (you can find the blog here). In it, he took issue with the way that the Bank’s Social Protection and Labour Group is continuing to plug the use of Proxy Mean Tests (PMTs) despite the Bank’s Research Development Group taking a more critical view.
I really enjoyed his blog……up to a certain point. Stephen reminded us that there have been conflicting messages on PMTs coming from different arms of the Bank, and he mapped out some good examples of this. So when he started to address “the big question on everyone’s lips”, I’d been ready to grab the popcorn and settle in for a rigorous debate about the role of evidence in social protection practice. But instead, his ‘big question’ (and he’s pretty clear that it’s a facetious one at that) was whether the Social Protection and Labor Group is changing its view on the use of PMTs. It left me disappointed, particularly given the short answer to that question seems to be a resounding ‘no’. In taking a cheeky shot at the Bank’s failure to harmonise their position, however well deserved, I think he missed the chance to ask some far more interesting (and genuine) questions.
After all, the Bank is hardly the only organisation with inconsistent views on targeting – they keep good company on this score with a number of bilateral and multilateral development partners. Without naming names, there are plenty of examples where country offices are supporting targeting approaches that are in direct conflict with their institution’s global position and mandate. And while multiple wrongs don’t make a right, it’s important to remember that this is an issue that’s bigger than just the World Bank. [As an aside, it’s worth noting that it’s not always good for everyone in an organisation to agree: contestation and debate can be a really positive thing, and it’s in this spirit that I’m responding to Stephen’s blog!] At any rate, I do agree that the Bank’s internal inconsistencies on PMTs are highly problematic: no-one wins when one arm of an organisation generates good quality evidence that another arm disregards at the point of implementation. It’s hardly a recipe for great development outcomes.
Which brings me to the bigger set of questions that I wish Stephen’s blog had explored….. Given the vast body of evidence that’s been amassed on PMTs and their poor performance, what more will it take to get everyone on board to finally translate that evidence into practice? What are the real drivers of decision-making, given this is clearly not an evidence-based agenda? In my experience, evidence usually ends up on the cutting room floor when there are bigger (often highly political) incentives to navigate. Is that what’s happening here? If so, what are these incentives and how do we manage them without compromising the quality of our work? And if it’s not about other incentives, what then is the real barrier to change, and how do we get past that? It seems ridiculous to keep going around in circles on this, so how can we get off the merry-go-round and get on with the business of delivering high-performing, evidence-informed social security programmes?
If anyone has thoughts on these questions, I’ve got the popcorn ready to go…
Juliet Attenborough is a Senior Social Policy Specialist at Development Pathways. She specialises in child protection, social protection, child rights and social inclusion.
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Also published on Medium.