Talking evidence in Latin America: right on time?

8 November 2018

The 3rd Latin American Evidence Week is over. It involved more than 80 events involving 15 countries and more that 3,000 participants among researchers, policymakers, journalists, activists, actors, funders, the private sector and the general public to reflect on and promote the use of evidence in policymaking.

The #semanadelaevidencia is a decentralised festival of events. It is open to any organisation interested in participating and, as such, it hosts presentations and discussions on a broad rage of issues and concerns: corruption, education, health, gender, social policy, economic policy, and many other topics where addressed.

Throughout these events we have been able to capture a few emerging ideas related to the generation, communication and use of evidence for policymaking -and for aspects of public interest. In this article I offer two ideas that illustrate a serious failing in evidence generation and use.

There is a timing issue between research and policy, but only because researchers are not paying attention to the future

Forward looking researchers and think tanks can reduce time lags, but this requires forward looking research and funding – or at least funders that encourage researchers and think tanks to look ahead to the issues on the horizon. The corruption crisis crippling the region has been several years in the making. Such is the breadth of its effects that it seems rather surprising that there hasn’t been much research on the subject thus far. The Latin American Anti-corruption Research Network (REAL) was launched last year and is due to present new (preliminary) research by its members in Quito in December.

The Venezuelan immigration crisis is another relevant example. It has been building up for at least a couple of years, with a steady growth in neighbouring countries.

Anecdotal evidence of corruption and of increasing Venezuelan migration has been rife across the region – and the economic crisis in Venezuela ought to have led some to expect a sudden rise in migrants. In Peru, in particular, official knowledge of widespread corruption by (mostly) Brazilian firms reached the public agenda in 2016, but we’ve known for much longer. Venezuelan immigration in Peru hit crisis levels a year ago. A whole year later “we are beginning to collect data”, as a researcher from a leading think tank in Peru told me during the Evidence Week.

Lessons could have been drawn from the past (on corruption) and from elsewhere -e.g. Europe (on immigration) to pre-empt public policy demand for evidence. Policymakers have been begging for evidence informed answers for over a year.

There is a timing issue between research and policy, but only if you have a narrow view of evidence

We often say that the timings in the fields of research and policy are different. Policymakers need answers in the short-term, and researchers take time to come up with those answers. This, however, attends to a linear view of evidence informed policy: policymakers request evidence to make a decision and researchers respond; and a definition of evidence that privileges academic over other kinds of research and analysis.

There is evidence. Early on, investigative journalism and opinion surveys have offered us a clear picture of the extent and nature of corruption and its effects on a range of sectors and the public more generally. It has also served to position corruption at the top of national and regional policy agendas and a priority demand by voters.

This kind of evidence, in the absence of the academic evidence that think tanks and policy research centres focus on in Latin America, has offered important answers to policymakers and the public.

Future thinking

By broadening our understanding of the kind of evidence that is useful to make policy decisions we can capture early impressions and useful information about the nature of a problem and how to address it. Public perception surveys are quite helpful for think tanks and researchers to identify and develop research agendas with a high likelihood of timely impact.

It doesn’t take much and both think tanks and funders would do well to invest in them as a means to reduce the time lag between policy questions and research answers.