Meet LIDC’s latest Featured Member, Hugh Sharma Waddington. Hugh is co-Director of LIDC's short courses. We're delighted he took the time to talk to us about how and why he embarked on his career pathway and the issues he feels are important in the global development landscape.
What are the factors in your background that led you to embark on your career in academia?
Since completing my Masters degree at Sussex University over 20 years ago, I have worked in both policy research and directly in policy making, in national government and international NGOs. This has included employment in the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning of the Government of Rwanda, the World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group, the UK National Audit Office, and the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation’s (3ie’s) Synthesis and Reviews Office. I was the founding Head of 3ie's London office, then based at LIDC. I had always enjoyed teaching but was never sure if a career in academia was the one for me. Lately, since obtaining my PhD at LSHTM in Infectious Disease and Public Health Impact Evaluation, I have come to the conclusion that my comparative advantage is on the production side of policy research. This means most of my time is spent doing funded research for people like the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the CGIAR, and the Youth Endowment Foundation, as well as teaching on economics, evaluation and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH).
What considerations have influenced your decision to stay in this field?
There are two main considerations for me to stay in this field. Firstly, I believe that intervention research is helpful for decision-makers and ultimately helps to improve the lives of the people participating in programmes. Secondly, my own contributions and those of the teams I work with can help by providing rigorous and relevant policy research. There are fads and fashions about ‘what works’, so I think there is an important role for rigorous evidence, particularly that from systematic assessments of evidence on implementation in multiple contexts. There is also a strong movement towards decolonisation in international development and global public health, which means it is a very exciting and inspiring time to be working on these topics. For example, I was involved in a recent evidence census on WASH research in low- and middle-income country contexts, which concluded that, while the standards for research design and conduct have improved markedly in the last few decades, unfortunately the clock seems to have rolled back on representation of authors from the contexts in which the studies are being carried out. Many early WASH impact evaluations were designed and conducted by researchers living and working in places like Bangladesh, Brazil, Guatemala, India and Mozambique. I believe that research is ideally done by the people who live and work in the research settings, and they should be involved in the design, analysis and presentation of research findings, not just data collection. In other words, I think there should be a ‘Triple-R’ criteria for assessing the quality of research, based on Rigour, Relevance and Representation.
How do you position yourself within the academy?
My research is on policy evaluation and evidence synthesis, including impact evaluations, systematic reviews and meta-analyses. This can be a challenging field to work in, as some policy makers dislike seeing evidence that suggests their preferred programmes are ineffective or even harmful, and some academics do not like to see their work criticised. Navigating this potential minefield requires a mix of approaches, including ‘soft skills’ and a collaborative mindset. Ensuring that those we want to influence are involved in the research from, or as close as possible to, the start of the research projects, to ensure that the rights questions are asked, and ensuring that the work is done to the highest standards, also help.
What are your research priorities, and why?
I favour research that aims to fill needed gaps and address important policy questions, such as on the global burden of disease, efforts to promote inclusion of those that have been marginalised, and poverty reduction efforts more generally. Recently, this has included work on the effectiveness of WASH programmes, support for smallholders like farmer field schools (FFS), and governance programmes to promote citizen participation, inclusion, transparency and accountability (PITA). As a “Development Economist”, a lot of my work has been on programmes in the Global South, although I am increasingly working on social development topics in high-income countries too, such as in evaluating programmes for marginalised youth or to mitigate against climate change.
What advice would you give to a student considering a career in academia?
For those who think they want to go into evaluation or policy research, I would recommend getting some experience working with policy and programmes organisations. This experience, and the knowledge gained, will prove useful time and time again. It is also important to do a research degree, so you can see if research is the right career for you. Part of the reason why it took me so long to complete my PhD was because I wanted to ensure that it addressed useful questions, and the long slog - as I did it part time - meant it was a struggle to complete. There were moments when I questioned why I was doing the degree, or my suitability for academia. Having now completed, I am proud of my thesis, and I hope it does achieve what I set out to do.
Many of us believe that researchers and academics in Africa – and indeed, throughout the global south – are actively prohibited from reaching the higher echelons of academia by the prohibitive fees charged by publishers. Do you have a view on this?
I do agree, and it is not just prohibitive publisher fees but the whole system that favours the West over the rest. Ruth Stewart, a colleague who set up the Africa Centre for Evidence, has written in the Lancet about the need for programmatic support at the institutional level to address these biases. Many of the challenges she cites are not insurmountable (e.g., computer hardware and software, restrictions on database access, limited data storage capacity, low internet bandwidth), but are common difficulties nonetheless. Addressing them is likely to require support from the major funding agencies, including the Philanthropy sector, as well as publishers, journal editors, Western-based research institutions and researchers themselves. I am hopeful that, as more and more people doing and commissioning development evaluation understand the problems created by the current institutional framework and incentives (and criticise them), this will change.
Do you work with collaborators and colleagues in the global south and if so, how do you ensure your partnerships with those you work with are equitable?
I am very proud to have been working with Campbell South Asia (CSA), based in New Delhi, since its inception in 2019. CSA are one of, if not the, leading providers of rigorous evidence synthesis in the world. They provide decision support to groups like IRRI, UNICEF, the WHO and many others, using approaches like evidence mapping and systematic reviews. I have learned a lot from working with CSA on projects, and I hope our collaboration will continue for years to come. I also work with the Action Against Stunting Hub, which has strong partnerships with researchers in India, Indonesia and Senegal. For example, I am working closely with the Indian Institute of Public Health and the National Institute of Nutrition, on primary and secondary studies relating to the behavioural and environmental causes of stunting, and regularly undertake capacity building workshops on topics like impact evaluation (RCTs, natural experiments and quasi-experiments), systematic reviews and evidence mapping. I also Co-Direct the LIDC short course on Programme Evaluation, which ran as a hybrid course for the first time in December 2022, incorporating both face-to-face participants and distance learners from policy, practice and research, with the intention of being as inclusive as possible. With Edoardo Masset, we are also planning a second LIDC short course for the summer this year, which will be a more advanced course focusing on the technical production side of development evaluation.
What do you hope the impact of your work will be?
I’d like to see a few things. Relating to my own research, I am looking for uptake in policy and practice, as well as in academia. We can’t just expect this will happen automatically, as there are so many competing priorities for people’s attention, so a more interventionist approach is needed. The Campbell Collaboration has been doing good work with user commissioners and other knowledge brokers. As I mentioned already, I favour doing commissioned research that fills knowledge gaps.
The second thing I’d like to see is a transition away from ‘development research’ done by Western institutions to a more inclusive environment where high quality research that answers the right questions on social and economic topics, is done by partnerships led by people closest to the implementation contexts, and a shift away from the language of ‘development’ more generally.
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