This research project represents a unique partnership between three researchers at three different institutions, and two implementing partner organizations on the ground in Mumbai, India. Researchers worked with Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) and Panni Haq Samiti (PHS) to craft interventions aligned with the implementing partners’ ongoing work and efforts to expand access to clean water to residents in Mumbai’s low-income settlements. The partnership leveraged YUVA’s ability to provide management and human resources services in Mumbai, PHS’s on the ground presence and ability to provide direct services and conduct surveys, and the researchers’ knowledge of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and access to resources to bring the work to scale.
Together, the team tested two interventions via a two-by-two factorial design. The first intervention included providing bureaucratic assistance to receive access to municipal water connections. This involved helping citizens complete onerous paperwork, as well as documents to show proof of residence and documentation of the legal status of the settlements in which they lived. The second intervention included political mobilization, which entailed encouraging citizens to organize political pressure drives including town hall meetings centered on the topic of water access, petitions, and group visits to the office of the local municipal councilor. Clusters of settlement residents received one, both, or neither intervention. Pre, mid, and endline surveys ascertained impacts related to securing water connection; political participation, attitudes, and behaviors about the state, taxes, and human welfare; and educational, employment, and health outcomes for settlement residents.
While endline findings are not yet available, midline findings indicate that while political mobilization was largely ineffective across outcomes, bureaucratic assistance increased odds of successfully applying for water connectivity and of receiving a visit from an agent or officer of the municipal water department. At the time of the midline findings, neither treatment appeared effective at increasing access to an official water connection, but this may be due to an outcome lag and endline findings may tell a different story. Midline findings were disseminated at a public event in Mumbai hosted collectively by the researchers, YUVA, and PHS. It was attended by approximately 40 people who were mainly members of the grassroots engagement team.
In the sections that follow, the brief discusses YUVA’s reflections on their decision to partner with the researchers, their working relationship, and the dissemination of findings. It also includes YUVA’s policy recommendations for future researcher/implementing partner collaborations. Where appropriate, perspectives from the researchers are also peppered in.
Decisions to Partner with the Research Team
YUVA indicated that preconceived notions about RCTs led them and PHS to be initially hesitant to work with the researchers. Specifically, they indicated that they, and many development organizations, perceived RCTs as potentially unethical as RCTs withhold critical services and resources from individuals in the “control” condition. YUVA was reassured by the researchers’ explanation that their goal was to not only leverage resources to expand the reach of YUVA and PHS’s work (and therefore expand access to clean water in Mumbai), but also to provide actionable lessons about how to make the work more effective, such as comparing outcomes for bureaucratic assistance versus political mobilization. Researchers suggested that describing RCTs by analogizing medical interventions was an effective means of communicating the ability of RCTs to glean causal insights, and to highlight the importance of doing so.
YUVA was further reassured by the realization that nothing in the RCT would preclude them from eventually providing services to individuals in the “control” condition, and that they could provide both bureaucratic assistance and political mobilization services as broadly as desired after the RCT was complete. YUVA also indicated enthusiasm about learning about RCTs, generally, both because RCTs have become a more common practice in development and because RCTs can help provide insights to improve development organizations’ work. Finally, they were enthusiastic about the opportunity to work collaboratively with PHS.
YUVA: “Initially we were a little hesitant because of what is often said in our circles about RCTs—that some will get constant care and attention, and those next door will say ‘why aren’t you helping us?’ That was a worry for us as an organization that works in an entire community. We were more onboard when we realized it would be easy for us to tell people ‘this is a trial, and we’ll come to you later. You know our office and can come any time if you have questions.’”
Researchers: “YUVA and PHS’s main concern was the denial of goods to the control group, which they had an instinctive negative reaction to. We persuaded them that the RCT would help scale up their activities and provide more people with services, that the randomized rollout could garner useful insights, and that after the study there would be nothing precluding them from working in any area. In terms of explaining RCTs, We always came back to a medical drug trials example. ‘Would you take a pill that hadn’t been properly tested? If we wouldn’t give an untested drug to patients, how can we go about giving untested policies to citizens? We want to make sure what we’re doing is effective before we spend lots of money on it.’”
Working with the Team
Even before the researchers submitted their grant application to EGAP, the partnership began with myriad exploratory discussions in which YUVA and PHS explained the local context and their existing work, and researchers communicated the value of scaling up and gleaning insights through an RCT. Researchers described leaning heavily on YUVA and PHS’s knowledge of conditions on the ground (for example where clean water access was present and lacking) and approaching the collaboration with the intention of refining and evaluating interventions YUVA and PHS were already engaged in, rather than asking them to do something unrelated to their existing work. YUVA indicated being reassured that the researchers leaned on their and PHS’s expertise and that the group developed the interventions collectively and collaboratively. Both YUVA and the researchers signified the importance of researchers approaching YUVA and PHS as equal partners in the research and proceeding patiently through initial exploratory phases, including detailed discussions of timing and budgets, to produce a research plan that worked for all parties involved.
YUVA explained that a deeper understanding of the mechanics of RCTs would have been helpful at the outset (particularly during the construction of the Memorandum of Understanding), both to clarify how the RCT would unfold and to divide roles and responsibilities between the two implementing organizations, as well as how to coordinate work with the research agency conducting the baseline, midline, and endline surveys. They cited challenges with perceived overlaps in YUVA and PHS’s duties which, while they were ironed out over time, slowed the work. They also described human resources challenges related to securing high-quality employees willing to work on short-term contracts, and suggested that longer-term contracts (e.g., one year) might have facilitated attracting higher quality employees. To overcome these HR challenges, YUVA redirected its own staff members to focus on RCT related work.
As work commenced, both YUVA and the researchers were very pleased with one another’s approach and communication style. Researchers indicated that YUVA provided detailed reports which provided a clear sense of how work was progressing on the ground and how they might provide guidance. The team relied largely on the messaging service WhatsApp to stay in touch and address issues quickly when they came up. The researchers also had a research assistant on the ground who could consistently liaise with the implementing partners. YUVA also expressed appreciation for the researchers’ understanding of YUVA and PHS’s expertise, giving the organizations space to address challenges in a manner consistent with their contextual knowledge.
YUVA: “The researchers supported us through the RCT process to take this work to scale. They were very understanding and open, and it was a pleasure working with them. A lot of people in development have told me about challenging experiences working with academics. If they had been extremely hard on us—for example by not understanding on the ground challenges—it would have been less pleasant.”
Researchers: “YUVA and PHS suggested the interventions and we refined them to make them compatible with our RCT designs. We were equal partners in the research, which was really critical from the get-go. We totally relied on PHS’s expertise in ground organization and to select sites. We had detailed, rich conversations with PHS organizers at the most local levels to glean all the knowledge they had, and it seemed they felt empowered by that. And at YUVA, Marina was just a real joy to work with—incredibly professional. She gave us detailed written reports which themselves could be something we could publish in some form.”
Dissemination of Findings
Midline findings were disseminated via a public event attended by about 40 individuals who were mostly members of PHS’s grassroots engagement team and YUVA’s staff. In addition, YUVA made phone calls to community members to describe the findings. YUVA reported that community members were less interested in the midline findings of the RCT (that bureaucratic assistance appeared more effective than political mobilization) and were more interested in reflecting on how the organizations’ efforts had facilitated their water application experiences and what the outcomes of that work had been. Many were excited to have successfully applied and been visited by the municipal agency.
YUVA suggested that researchers working with implementing partners communicate the benefits of RCTs and take steps to overcome preconceived negative ideas implementing organizations may have about research in the development sector by:
Conveying a commitment to a common cause, rather than merely to a research agenda
Explaining the benefits of the potential RCT in terms of the aforementioned common cause, e.g., increasing the number of people served or gleaning insights that can ensure future work helps people more effectively
Allaying concerns about assigning some individuals to a control condition by, for example, reminding that after the RCT, organizations can provide services as broadly as they would like
A common recommendation provided by YUVA and the researchers was to approach implementors as equal partners in the research by:
Developing interventions in collaboration with implementing partners, and ideally studying interventions that are aligned with implementors’ existing work
Leaning heavily on implementing partners’ local expertise in making context-relevant research decisions, such as site selection
Finally, YUVA suggested these means of proactively addressing coordination challenges:
Providing a clear explanation of the nuts and bolts of RCTs so implementing partners can understand their work and, where there are multiple partner organizations, divide responsibilities effectively
Ensuring fluid communication via a seamless communication medium, such as WhatsApp messaging
Considering human resources challenges and potential means of addressing them (such as providing longer term contracts to attract high quality employees)
YUVA: “We had a great experience, but that is not always the case. In a country like India, particularly with Western academics, there needs to be a great deal of sensitivity. The partner needs to be seen as an equal producer of knowledge. And the academic knowledge produced needs to be useful for the implementing partner’s work.”