After moderating a financial inclusion session during IPA’s recent Impact and Policy Conference in Bangkok, I felt upbeat about the relevance of academic research for the private sector. But it took me a while to get there.
You see, I’m a regular on the conference circuit. But the gatherings I’m familiar with operate in a different world. Dominated by private sector business types, these events are identifiable by conveniently predictable, if often vacuous, buzzwords; everyone’s got an out-of-the-box paradigm buster to share.
What a fish out of water in Bangkok! Instead of slick PowerPoints pitching the next “game-changing business model,” the talk here was all about evidence from interventions; structural constraints versus behavioral constraints; and whether randomized control trials, or RCTs, can be done faster, cheaper. This was the world of academic research – and I liked it. Because these people were smart. And I (a “practitioner,” I quickly learned to call myself) was invited to hear about their latest and greatest research. This was good stuff.
In the financial inclusion world today, there is some healthy debate about the role of research, including the pros and cons of different approaches. In the CGAP blogosphere alone, there’s a recognition that large-scale quantitative databases such as the World Bank Findex can encourage product and service providers to lean on an empirical fact base as they size up their target markets, rather than gut feeling. Others have talked about the value of applied research methodologies or, more generally, the merits of complementing quantitative research with qualitative.
So what of the role for heavy-duty academic research? This, it would seem, is the serious stuff: randomized control trials, for instance, with clearly delineated control groups, rigorous statistical analysis, and the scrutiny of peer review.
Judging from my day at the conference, there’s a ton of great material out there (not all of it RCTs, or even quant, no doubt). It could be of real relevance to existing and would-be providers, so long as they knew about it! So, my first thought on how this academic research might have greater impact is this: get the word out.
As Ignacio Mas points out, the issue may be less that we need more research and more that someone needs to do something with what’s already out there. IPA has a great searchable database of publications they’re involved in – but how many existing and prospective demand-side providers have the URL bookmarked? If the task at hand is to get the people who offer financial services to step up their innovation game in end-user product design (reasons for optimism here; the nature of the challenge here), we need to share the treasure trove of existing academic research far and wide.
Second, let’s look at more opportunities like IPA’s matchmaking exercise, which aims to get the right researchers paired with the right providers. There’s no better way to produce good research than to have both parties sign off on the brief together – and this could get academic research into new and important areas, too. (Easy example: as a network business, Visa would have a great deal of interest in research that looks into one of the hot topics of the day for branchless banking – interoperability).
While in Bangkok for that one day, I picked up a useful nugget about the motivations behind emergency funds transfers during times of crisis in Rwanda (interesting to me because I spend a lot of time there, but maybe interesting to others, too – here it is.) I never would have picked that up if IPA, together with ADB and J-PAL, hadn’t brought different worlds together in this conference: researchers, policy makers, and practitioners – where practitioners even included the likes of a multinational payment network. We need to do more of this, and we need to get both past and future bodies of academic research out farther and wider.
----- The author is the head of Emerging Market Solutions at Visa
I am heartened to see this plea for efforts to be undertaken to ensure that what we are learning about microfinance through research be made more accessible to practitioners. Of course, practitioners could and should have shown more curiosity about what we are learning through research. In any case, I have long felt that the frequency of the dialogue between microfinance researchers and practitioners has been far from optimal. This is despite occasional efforts to bridge the gap, such as a meeting jointly organized by the Center for Financial Inclusion and the Center for Global Development some years back. (I proposed during that meeting that such consultations be held on a regular basis, but unfortunately that has not happened.)
At the end of my review of Dean Karlan’s "More Than Good Intentions" (http://cfi-blog.org/2012/09/05/alex-counts-on-karlan-and-appels-more-th…) (a book that I generally liked) on the Center for Financial Inclusion blog, I raised the issue of what is the impact of impact research itself. Clearly more can and should be done to measure and enhance the impact of impact research. Measurement (and associated recognition) will go a long way to motivate researchers to take all possible steps to collaborate with practitioners to apply what is discovered in research. Indeed, measuring the impact of impact research could reorient the incentives for academicians and help achieve a better balance between conducting research and ensuring that it positively changes practice, resource allocations, etc.
There is some low-hanging fruit in terms of conveying what research is suggesting about how the practice of microfinance can be improved. If researchers are truly committed to “putting research into action”, at a bare minimum there should be a single, jargon-free paper published soon that summarizes the “lessons for practice” from available research on microfinance, with annual updates as new research emerges. I would hope and expect that such a paper would be required reading for any board or senior management planning retreat organized by an MFI or microfinance network – of which there must be hundreds held every year. If microfinance researchers are committed to causing as well as measuring impact (i.e., positive change), I believe that something along these lines is an absolute must.