Hail the Scholar-Practitioners: Nora Lustig

Here at CGD, we talk a lot about the “what” of policy. We’re in the business of ideas and that sometimes leads us to overlook the crucial question of the “who” in the policy process. Thankfully we have Nora Lustig, a non-resident fellow at the Center for Global Development, Samuel Z. Stone Professor of Latin American economics at Tulane University, and non-resident fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue. Nora has just written a working paper on the role of scholar-practitioners in the creation, design, evaluation, and political survival of Mexico’s Progresa/Oportunidades anti-poverty program, which has become a model for both impact evaluation and for conditional cash transfer programs around the world. On this week’s show, she draws on her new paper to tell me the story of scholar-practitioners and Protgresa/Oportunidades. In Mexico, a change in president often means the scrapping of old regime’s programs and policies to replace them with something new—but not necessarily better. Oportunidades, the conditional cash transfer program originally known as Progressa, is an exception that has survived the test of time. In 2001, after the fall of the PRI party from power, Progresa seemed headed for the political chopping block. Impact evaluations undertaken by scholar-practitioners who ran the program proved crucial to its survival. “I think that it survived because there was a lot of evidence that Progresa worked,” says Nora. Since that political test, newly re-named Oportunidades has not only survived but thrived, expanding its coverage from 400,000 beneficiaries in 1997 to 2 million by 2001. Nora chalks its success up to the highly trained researchers who conceived and led the project. Their scholarly inclinations influenced their decision to build impact-evaluations into the program’s design, providing the evidence necessary to lobby politicians for continued support. Despite Oportunidade’s success, Nora is quick to dismiss those who might peg researchers as superior practitioners. Scholars can be helpful but they are no panacea when it comes to finding good implementers. She cites a troubling example in the recent financial crisis, where she believes that overreliance on the scholarly community’s belief in free markets led to excessive deregulation in the financial markets and the 2008 global financial crisis. “We can say for sure that there are instances in which having scholars become practitioners leads to excellent outcomes,” says Nora. “In other cases it wasn’t so – so we can’t say for sure. But I think that whenever you can produce solid evidence to back your programs, it’s probably better to have scholars be part of the process.” If you have iTunes, you can subscribe to get new episodes delivered straight to your computer every week. My thanks to Will McKitterick for his production assistance on the Wonkcast recording and for assistance in drafting this blog post.