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Fit for Purpose Evidence: The Key to Finding and Knowing What Works

Throughout May, USAID’s Agency Learning and Evidence Month 2024 poses a fundamental question for development practitioners: “What works and where to find it?” This question is not just a thought exercise—collecting, disseminating, and then applying high-quality evidence paves the way for strong results to address the world’s toughest challenges.

At EI, we take an evidence-first approach. That’s why we started our Evidence and Evaluation Service Line (EESL) to coordinate decision-oriented analytical work across projects. In my role as EESL Lead, I’ve learned key lessons from our collective experience identifying what works and where to find it.

Evidence Works When It Is “Fit for Purpose”

To be effective, evidence must be purpose-driven, efficiently developed, quality controlled, and intentionally bias-avoidant. In other words, evidence must be thoughtfully collected and accessible and relevant to decision makers. Leveraging tools like lookbacks and internal knowledge management systems, we can improve from missteps and identify and replicate what is working. Over the past year, EI teams supported evidence that “works” by:

  • Taking a user-centric approach—reinforced by market data—to launch San Diego County’s Landscape Optimization Service. This first-of-its-kind program offers personalized assistance to incentivize property owners to install sustainable landscapes, stormwater management, and other nature-based solutions.
  • Embracing new technologies to contribute to a journal article, published in Nature’s Scientific Reports, that leveraged publicly available satellite imagery to evaluate the impacts of multi-year resilience programming in Niger.
  • Using visual models to effectively share evidence about Reducing Violence Against Environmental Defenders in Latin America and the Caribbean. This internal-to-USAID learning product drew from a literature review and key informant interviews with USAID Environment and Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance Officers.

Good News: Evidence Is All Around Us

In an increasingly interconnected, data-based world, practitioners often face an abundance of information and a shortage of time. Effective knowledge management and information curation are fundamental services to help practitioners find effective, applicable evidence and close the research-implementation gap.

Not only is evidence all around us, but we also have more tools than ever to access and interpret it. EI teams have created and used built-for-purpose databases, online surveys, and U.S. government data interfaces, including interfacing with USAID’s Development Information Solution, to securely store, protect, analyze, and report on research, monitoring, and evaluation findings. In recent projects, our teams simplified the “where” of evidence by:

  • Leveraging interactive tools that draw from a wide pool of knowledge to help develop USAID/Guatemala’s Data Hub. Developed under USAID’s Program Cycle Mechanism, this website provides a central space for analyzing and sharing data from the Mission’s programming.
  • Creating a standardized Knowledge Repository Tool to quickly develop internal knowledge bases. So far, we have customized this efficient, replicable, interactive tool to warehouse evidence and data related to nine different regions, sectors, and/or issues.
  • Bringing evidence to decision makers in an easy-to-use format and structure through an infographic-based dashboard for California’s Water Use Efficiency Framework Compliance Readiness Assessment. The dashboard facilitates effective resource allocation by assessing a water agency’s readiness to comply with new state regulations and identifying key areas of risk and liability.

Our experience shows us that having high quality data isn’t enough—curating, communicating, and amplifying it effectively is essential to help practitioners find program relevant evidence. Sector based knowledge management websites, including USAID’s Learning Lab, Climatelinks, and ResilienceLinks, which EI supports through USAID’s Program Cycle Mechanism (PCM) and Advancing Capacity for the Environment (ACE) projects, strategically capture and share user-friendly information in formats tailored for these specific audiences.

From Evidence to Action

The final piece of the evidence puzzle is connecting rigorous, accessible evidence to decision making structures—in other words, putting evidence to action. Learning and research agendas promote evidence-informed decision making by engaging cross sectoral stakeholders to identify key learning needs and direct investment toward evidence gaps. Through USAID’s Ethiopia Resilience Learning Activity, EI facilitated a community-driven learning workshop to inform a collaborative learning agenda linking seven USAID-funded resilience activities. This year, we are revising this learning agenda and expanding it to include perspectives from USAID’s full suite of almost 30 resilience-focused activities.

Similarly, moving from evidence to action requires bringing learning to scale. EI facilitated USAID’s COVID-19 Big Picture Reflection, an Agency-wide pause and reflect event focused on capturing learning about the second-order effects of the pandemic. Support included analysis of internal and external documentation of COVID’s effects and knowledge products reflecting lessons learned for future use.

In an increasingly interconnected world, we are closer than ever to achieving development goals through evidence-based practice. Nevertheless, there can be a wide gap between evidence generators and evidence users. As we join our USAID colleagues in exploring “What works, and where to find it?,” we celebrate our lessons learned from developing rigorous, fit-for-purpose evidence, finding and curating existing evidence, and creating systems and processes to put the evidence base into action.

About the Author

Kathleen Flower, Ph.D. brings 20 years of experience in conservation and international development with specializations in capacity development, program planning standards, marine conservation, climate change and resilience programming, and combating wildlife trafficking to her role as Evidence and Evaluation Service Line Lead.


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