Field –testing ideas
Trans World Features (TWF) | 20 Apr 2014
Field –testing ideas
Resources for developmental programmes often go wasted due to lack of in-field experience. US-based Neil Buddy Shah develops a module IDinsight to streamline social change with clients around the world , including India. Michael Gallant reports

Let’s say you’re trying to improve education across India,” says Neil Buddy Shah, 30, leaning forward in his chair at a café in New York City. “How do you do it?”


A daunting question indeed, and one to which there are many possible answers. “You could hire more teachers,” Shah suggests. “You could invest in textbooks and other infrastructure. Or you could provide incentives for teachers based on improvements in their students’ performance. These are all potentially good ways to go,” he continues, “but the question is, how do we put money behind the best idea possible?”


Answering such queries is what IDinsight, an international nonprofit organisation co-founded by Shah, was created to do. Combining deep expertise in economics, public policy and data analysis, Shah and his colleagues have consulted with governments in Bihar and Andhra Pradesh; ministries of health in Uganda and Zambia; and organisations like the World Bank Group to examine the real-world impacts that each client’s social programmes are having. 


IDinsight gathers and interprets what Shah describes as “rigorous evidence” to help its clients spend their money on programmes that effectively solve social problems—and not waste resources on ones that do not. 


The organisation does its work by field-testing ideas, and then interpreting the resulting data to figure out which strategies are most effective. “It’s similar to how the medical field tests if a new medication is effective or not,” says Shah. “To give a simplified example, if we’re looking at schools and had 500 across India to examine, we’d randomly choose 250 to get more teachers and the other 250 to get better textbooks. Over the course of a year, we’d look at improvements in learning. At the end of the year, we’d see which group was performing better and know which strategy was more effective.”


Before helping to create IDinsight, Shah earned a medical degree from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, after which he studied developmental economics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. It was there that Shah became friends with classmates who had experiences working in India, Sub-Saharan Africa and other areas—experience that well complemented Shah’s own time working on social programs in Rajasthan from 2006 to 2007 and in Bihar and Karnataka in 2011. 


“We all had experience running the kinds of studies that IDinsight does,” says Shah, “but what we saw was that these powerful academic research tools could be used to directly help organisation managers and government officials make the right decisions.”


On a personal level, Shah’s motivation to streamline positive change around the world is due in no small part to his family heritage; though he was born and raised in a small Pennsylvania town, his parents were Indian immigrants to the United States via East Africa. “I think having those roots really gave our whole family a sense of global citizenship,” says Shah. 


He also credits the writings of John Rawls, who Shah first read as a freshman at Harvard, with pointing him on his current career direction. “Rawls made the argument that our positions in society are accidents at birth,” he says. “We don’t necessarily deserve what we have as far as position in society, given that so much of it is dependent on whether we were born in a rich country, or to supportive parents, or given good educational opportunities.”


“Reading that book, and seeing how many cousins I had who didn’t have the same opportunities that I had been given growing up in the States, really impacted me,” he continues. “There was little else I could do, other than devote my career to helping expand opportunities for people around the world.”


(Courtesy SPAN)


 Neil Buddy Shah in the image