Meet the Research Director 2018/19!

My name is Luca and I am super excited to be directing the Research Team this year. I have long been fascinated by the question of why some are countries are rich whilst others remain poor and, by extension, what we can do about it. It is why I chose to study Economics. Whilst you can learn a lot in the classroom, CDI allows you to tackle this question head-on and use your insights to help inform real-world projects. How do we best fight gender inequality? How do we assist communities without infringing their autonomy? What new technologies should we help implement in what local areas? These questions need answers!

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This past summer I worked on the Monitoring and Evaluation of the Entrepreneurship Project. Although often at times difficult, it was without a doubt one of the rarest and rewarding experiences I have ever had. I was given an astounding amount of responsibility shaping the project and talking to stakeholders. I had to rise to the many challenges NGOs face and was made to recognize and tackle many of my own preconceptions. With the help of my UK and Tanzanian colleagues, I grew tremendously because of it.

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One key thing I learned was that research is absolutely vital for development, especially the ideation stage. As Research Director I want to ensure that our projects are targeting the most pertinent problems, that our efforts are informed, and that our solutions are sustainable. That means thinking critically and creatively.

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To this end, research volunteers will be able to pursue their own areas of interest with great flexibility, looking to identify new project opportunities and publishing a peer-reviewed working paper by the end of their assignment. Although most research is done in Cambridge, volunteers can expect to collaborate with international organizations, leading development scholars, and our Tanzanian partners. This is a truly unique opportunity to get involved in and see your work directly feed back into real projects.

If you are interested in joining the Research Team, applications are open now!




Rethinking Development

The CDI Research Blog

A Doctor with a Difference

CDI Practitioner Series with Dr. Nigel Pearson

CDI Practitioner Series brings practitioners working on the ground in interaction with our research volunteers. Our researchers try to understand what inspires development practitioners working on some of the most challenging contexts in the world and what they are doing differently to help communities.

By Edward Saunders, CDI (Research)

 Dr Nigel Pearson is a medical doctor by profession but works as a consultant for a variety of organisations including WHO, UNHCR, and The Gates Foundation. In his own words:

“I help countries that are in a state of conflict to develop health systems to meet the needs of their people – prioritising wider common medical problems that cause suffering.”


He works on the ground in ‘challenging operating environments’ (COEs) which face issues such as war, corruption, and oppression – the kind of places that commonly appear in the bottom 25 of various lists. These locations often have some of the highest disease burdens with killer diseases like Malaria, HIV, and TB.


On his motivations to do his work in challenging environments, justice is a common theme.

“I hate seeing suffering, and I think that it is an outrage that healthy women die when they have a baby, or young kids die of preventable diseases, or middle-aged people die from easily treatable conditions. It is about justice… It comes from personal philosophy and also Christian faith…. If the world was to spend a fraction of what it spends on arms – or even pet food! We wouldn’t have this problem. You need a very good understanding of every context of every country – sometimes break down countries into parts for big countries like Nigeria or Pakistan… If you want to help Somalia or Congo you really do have to understand how they work to cause lasting change. “


Forming partnerships is at the focus of Nigel’s work.

“I lived in a community in eastern Congo for 8 years and was hands-on doctor. I had to speak the language, understand the culture, and become part of the society. I had to enter into it to be empathetic and therefore really understand the problems they face day after day.”


Developing those partnerships is also key to his approach.

“Training needs to be a big component – peer example and getting to know people day after day. Working with people. You have to be very patient with countries – they’re not going to change overnight. But never give up. This is possible if you befriend people. If you really like and love people and respect them and respect their culture – their beliefs – and not impose your own. Then you can begin to try be a little bit effective.”


A big takeaway I got from talking to Nigel about his work was:

“Try to work with people who you can really work with. Brilliant inspirational people. Even if you don’t think they have that much influence… invest in somebody today and they will be running programs in 10 or 20 years’ time. They are the future transformers”


I asked Nigel how he stays safe.

“I go with organisations with big risk management capacity like the UN. Or I travel in Eastern Congo – where I know so many people and ask my friends to keep me up to date with information on situations… There are no guarantees of safety in any of these countries, but it helps to be well informed or have a head of security who is.”


Flexibility seems key to safety.

“Some days we will wake up in the morning in Congo and won’t have made an itinerary before hearing news, or sometimes we have made plans and have to move countries… We have to constantly revise our assessment.”


When I asked how he overcomes challenges, he lays out his method:

“My first principle is I have to see it… Often if you turn up in a town or health centre – within minutes you can see the problems. “


“Then get lots of people together. A cross section of nationals, government workers, religious leaders, business people… Keep asking open questions and keep an open mind… You always find something new you weren’t expecting. Always. And it can be a solution to a particular problem.”


“When designing interventions, try to model on what is currently working in that particular very difficult scenario. In Somalia, business people manage to move stuff and be successful despite ongoing war. Why?… The solutions are usually there, you just have to find them.”


I asked Nigel what were some of the impact of his work.

“Seeing women and kids not dying, more families planning for kids, and people getting the right health advice and not being ripped off. Sometimes it can be changing the ways organisations operate. It can be very exciting to see the impact.”


When I asked him what his future projects were, he remarked, “My timeline is only really 2 weeks ahead!”


However, Nigel does have an inkling as to what the future may hold.

“In 20 years time, I am sure I will still be working in Congo. Some things will be better, some won’t be… But hopefully day after day I will be able to help people… Just to be there with people, I think is really important… The greatest reward is friendship. To feel that you are lifelong friends with someone from a different culture – a different world – is unbeatable.”

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Nigel in Adi, Ituri, DRC, with Drs Ayiki and Gbombo. Dr Ayiki works at Adi hopital and Dr Gbombo is the Medical Coordinator for the Anglican Church of Congo’s Service Médical. (photo taken July 2017)Enter a caption


Reviewing Research: New Forms of CDI Partnership

Deepa Iyer and Olivia Chapman

CDI is an organisation firmly committed to growth through a combination of primary and secondary research and on-the-ground experience. In addition to producing impact evaluation reports based on our own projects, we pride ourselves on constantly engaging with the most cutting-edge academic work emerging from the field. As students, we are in a unique position to act as both researchers and practitioners. In fact, several members of this year’s Executive Committee, as well as a number of our summer volunteers, are pursuing degrees in Development Studies or related subjects, conducting research and authoring papers and large-scale dissertations on development in both theory and practice. As the subject is so distinctively interdisciplinary, the connections that can be drawn from coursework to fieldwork are as innovative as they are endless.

However, despite the important intersection we occupy as students and young people, rarely are we asked to contribute our perspectives to the field, especially through a critical review. And even more rarely do we receive the chance to directly participate in the research conducted by the sector’s most influential actors.

That is why when CDI was approached by an important partner [David Woollcombe of Peace Child International] to provide a peer review for a USAID publication, we were quick to seize the opportunity.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID)—though held accountable practice-wise through public databases such as the Development Experience Clearinghouse—typically relies upon an internal review structure for work produced by its economists and policy researchers. Publications not specifically related to USAID project implementation appear as broad thematic or regional studies (i.e. “gender” or “Southeast Asia”) to be used primarily by the institution and its partners. Occasionally they may collaborate with academics from top universities, related domestic or multinational organisations like the Department of State or the OECD, or other ‘guests’ to produce reviews and short briefs contributing to debates on pressing development issues. In a surprising move, however, Dr. Louise Fox, the agency’s Chief Economist, reached out not only to development practitioners working on youth employment in the sub Saharan Africa (SSA) region but actual youth as well. It is significant that our work at CDI was impressive enough to lead to us being recommended as one of the candidates for this review process.

Upon reading the text, Deepa Iyer, leader of our newly inaugurated Research Team, and Olivia Chapman—Director of the Entrepreneurship Project—agreed that the study on youth unemployment in Sub-Saharan Africa contained important lessons for both our areas of work within the organisation. Reviewing was not simply an exercise, like proof-reading a peer’s essay, but in fact a valuable and collaborative exchange of knowledge. As we worked to produce the joint review we noted with great interest the similarities and differences within our individual critiques. Though we were equally impressed by and critical of many features on a broader scale, we had each approached the piece with a lens unique to the needs of our CDI teams.

For example, the research team at CDI spends a lot of its time and effort exploring specific policy questions that have come out of previous experiences of project implementation. On the one hand, we have the type of research that is effectively filling the ‘knowledge gap’ of a policy that is already designed for specific requirements. On the other, we are also faced with the task of rethinking the question and confronting it from a different perspective altogether. This paper that we reviewed gave us precisely the second kind of appraisal, by looking at the employment question for the youth afresh. A novelty in methodology that we found remarkable was the use of typology, a method usually used in biology and linguistics to categorize known information into related ‘types’. We found that the authors used typology as a method to organize known interventions in youth unemployment into well-defined categories and bring out underlying relationship among different types of interventions.

While Deepa was primarily interested in the study’s methodology and its potential strategic applications for her team, Olivia’s role as Entrepreneurship Project Director led her to focus on the practitioner side of the equation. The Entrepreneurship Project originated with the idea of introducing a new approach to combatting youth unemployment in Tanzania: supporting university students and recent graduates in the ideation and growth of their own start-up enterprises. As we are this year handing off the previous project to local implementers, the entrepreneurship team now faces the challenge of developing and piloting a completely new initiative. The structural approach used by the article allowed for an extremely thorough review of the work being done in youth unemployment in the region. Thus, we could observe what projects had been implemented, on what scale, and targeting which demographics. In addition, the theories and past experiences informing the justification for each program design were clearly outlined. Instead of pouring over countless individual descriptions, reports and critiques of work done by the sector in the region over time, the development of various approaches and quickly evaluate their applicability to the CDI model could be traced.

After submitting our review, we were invited to meet with Dr. Fox in person at a seminar being held in London, in order to discuss our critique more thoroughly. Unfortunately, the timing was incompatible with our schedules; however, the very thought that a major influencer of global development policy would consider lending an ear to two graduate students was heartening to say the least.

For CDI, this is the beginning of an important step toward more integrated and cohesive knowledge management, both within the organisation and through outside partnerships. We now see one way in which the Research Team and individual CDI projects can collaborate and learn together. We also view this type of work as strengthening CDI’s reputation in the sector more broadly. Partnerships are key for both funding and direct project implementation, but they can also serve as a means to network and to exchange knowledge and experience. We are valuable to our partners as much as our work is validated by them.

For both of us, the process was inspiring, productive, and genuinely a lot of fun. We will definitely be pushing for CDI to continue this type of research-based collaboration in the future and look forward to the opportunities that will continue to come our way!