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These 3 barriers make it hard for policymakers to use the evidence that development researchers produce

In international development, the “evidence revolution” has generated a surge in policy research over the past two decades. We now have a clearer idea of what works and what doesn’t. In India, performance pay for teachers works: students in schools where bonuses were on offer got significantly higher test scores. In Kenya, charging small fees for malaria bed nets doesn’t work — and is actually less cost-effective than free distribution. The American Economic Association’s registry for randomized controlled trials now lists 1,287 studies in 106 countries, many of which are testing policies that very well may be expanded.

But can policymakers put this evidence to use?

Here’s how we did our research

We assessed the constraints that keep policymakers from acting on evidence. We surveyed a total of 1,509 civil servants in Pakistan and 108 in India as part of a program called Building Capacity to Use Research Evidence (BCURE), carried out by Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) at Harvard Kennedy School and funded by the British government.

We found that simply presenting evidence to policymakers doesn’t necessarily improve their decision-making. The link between evidence and policy is complicated by several factors.

1. There are serious constraints in policymakers’ ability to interpret evidence.

We asked civil servants to interpret numerical information presented in a two-by-two table, shown below, that displays the crop yields obtained by farmers who had or had not used a new seed variety. We asked whether farmers who had used the new seeds were more likely to harvest more crops than those who had not used the new…

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