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Our efforts toward more and better impact evaluation of development programs made a major advance this week with the announcement that Howard White, who has dedicated his career to building evidence about development effectiveness, has accepted the position as the first director of the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (see the CGD initiative: Closing the Evaluation Gap). This culminates a broad international search (conducted by an excellent team at the London-based executive search firm of Heidrick & Struggles), and represents a very promising and concrete step toward the launch of the 3IE, an entity that will bring new financial and technical resources to conduct and disseminate impact evaluations around the world. Howard comes to the leadership position with a genuine vision for the role that evidence-building can play in making the most of the precious resources available for improving lives and livelihoods in the developing world.

In May 2006, when we launched the report of the Evaluation Gap Working Group, we hoped it would make a big difference in the world. Building on the work of many others, we wanted to bring attention to missed opportunities for the development community to systematically learn from real-world experiences what types of health, education and poverty-reduction programs really work in what settings. We sought to provoke leaders of aid agencies to dedicate more resources and attention to their evaluation departments. And we wanted to encourage collaboration among developing country governments and funding agencies -- to pool financial and technical resources for a shared agenda of policy-relevant evaluation. We tried to make the case that, in the end, one of the most important contributions that development assistance can make is to generate new knowledge about what works and what doesn't, in the most rigorous, transparent ways possible. And we also tried to point out that real accountability of public sector agencies, whether those that provide development aid or the sectoral ministries in developing countries, requires strong evaluation.

This is neither a glamorous nor an easy agenda -- there are no celebrity galas to raise money for better impact evaluation, and the debates in the field often tend toward methodological arcana. But, we found, it is one around which many people have passionate views, and which generates a surprising amount of interest from those who see the need for strong evidence on which to base decisions about the allocation of funding and the orientation of social policy. Quite soon after the launch of the Working Group report (When Will We Ever Learn: Improving Lives Through Impact Evaluation), we found that there was sufficient momentum behind the recommendations -- and particularly the proposal to establish a dedicated impact evaluation initiative -- to push on toward implementation.

Moving toward implementation has meant identifying leading governments and organizations who are champions of evaluation and evidence-based policy making; securing initial financial resources for the first several years of operation; and identifying institutions that potentially could host the entity as CGD transitions from championing this idea to being a cheerleader from the sidelines. Recognizing the fundamental importance of the early leadership, we also undertook the search for the executive director, which is now happily concluded.

There is a lot of work ahead -- most importantly, to ensure that the initiative is organized and governed in a way that provides the most value for decision makers in developing countries, rather than simply for the global aid community. Howard takes on that priority with a great combination of enthusiasm and experience. I look forward with excitement to seeing what happens in the new year.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.