Evidence-based policies drive progress

Many of South Africa's youth still think that the odds are stacked against them. (Photo: Georges Drouet)

Many of South Africa's youth still think that the odds are stacked against them. (Photo: Georges Drouet)

In the wake of the 70th United Nations General Assembly held in September this year, which saw the adoption of the new post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals and marked the end of the Millennium Development Goals’ 15-year tenure, it is a time for South Africa to reflect on its own journey in achieving these goals, and determine what work lies ahead. We’ve had many wins, but two of the most fundamental and far-reaching challenges still remain: poverty and inequality. 

Now in its fifth democratic term, South Africa is on many levels a poster child for progress on Millennium Development Goal (MDGs), indicators such as poverty, HIV, housing, water and sanitation and gender equality.

But the country still faces immense challenges, as the National Development Plan 2030: Our Future — Make it Work report, released in 2012 by the National Planning Commission (NPC), starkly articulates: “Eighteen years into our democracy, South Africa remains a highly unequal society where too many people live in poverty and too few work. The quality of school education for most black learners is poor. The apartheid spatial divide continues to dominate the landscape. A large proportion of young people feel that the odds are stacked against them. And the legacy of apartheid continues to determine the life opportunities for the vast majority.” 

Reducing poverty and inequality is at the heart of the National Development Plan (NDP), which states: “To make meaningful, rapid and sustained progress in reducing poverty and inequality over the next two decades, South Africa needs to fix the future, starting today.”

Dimensions of poverty and inequality in South Africa: 20 years on

According to 2011 estimates, South Africa has recorded a decline in poverty levels since 2006 as well as an improvement in poverty depth, which indicates that the income levels of the poor have increased. 

These improvements indicate that the programmes and strategies implemented by government towards poverty alleviation have had a positive impact on those who are poorest. 

The data also reflects the various successes of pro-poor elements of the country’s policies, as well as the need for further investigation and deliberate responses.

These positive trends were driven by a combination of factors ranging from income growth, decelerating inflationary pressure, and an expansion of credit, to social protection, including free primary health care, no-fee schools, social grants (most notably the old age pension and child support grant), RDP housing, and the provision of basic services to households such as water, electricity and sanitation. 

But the battle is far from won. With levels of inequality increasing worldwide, including in South Africa, resulting in less social cohesion and more national, regional and global instability, it is crucial that South Africa explores more innovative policy interventions and improves current interventions in terms of reducing both poverty and inequality. 

Published at the end of the last administration (2009-2014), the Presidency’s 20 Year Review emphasises this point, explaining that although the lives of millions of South Africans have improved due to new laws, better public services, expansion of economic opportunities and improved living conditions, poverty, inequality and unemployment continue to negatively affect the lives of many people.

Captured in government’s strategic plan for the 2014-2019 electoral term, the Medium Term Strategic Framework (MTSF) points out that “too few people have work, investment is too slow and education lags behind our requirements. The weak state of the economy impedes our efforts to reach our development goals. 

The second phase of our democratic transition calls for bold and decisive steps to place the economy on a qualitatively different path that eliminates poverty, creates jobs and sustainable livelihoods, and substantially reduces inequality. This requires radical economic transformation and a sustained focus on addressing the uneven quality of service delivery.”

Building a capable state 

Where the NDP offers a long-term perspective on these challenges, the MTSF sets out the actions government will take and the targets to be achieved. As the first MTSF to follow the adoption of the NDP in September 2012, which brings greater coherence and continuity to the planning system, it is the first five-year building block towards the achievement of the vision and goals of the NDP. 

It aims to ensure policy coherence, alignment and co-ordination across government, which, as Chapter 13 in the NDP on how to build a capable state demonstrates, cannot be done without building the capacity of the state: “A developmental state needs to be capable, but a capable state does not materialise by decree, nor can it be legislated or waved into existence by declarations. It has to be built, brick by brick, institution by institution, and sustained and rejuvenated over time. It requires leadership, sound policies, skilled managers and workers, clear lines of accountability, appropriate systems, and consistent and fair application of rules.”

The chapter identifies critical interventions needed to build a professional public service and a state capable of playing a transformative and developmental role in realising the vision for 2030, such as well-run and effectively co-ordinated state institutions staffed by skilled public servants. But how do we provide the support and training needed to build this capacity?

One such intervention aimed at doing just this is the Programme to Support Pro-poor Policy Development (PSPPD), a research and capacity-building programme borne out of the strategic partnership between South Africa and the European Union (EU). Located within the department of planning, monitoring and evaluation (DPME) in the Presidency, the PSPPD’s main premise is that to really address the twin challenges of poverty and inequality and truly impact on people’s lives, we need appropriate policy responses. And to formulate, reform and evaluate these policies, we need appropriate evidence on which to base them. 

This is a two-way street. Not only do policy-makers need good quality research so that they can make informed policy choices and improve the implementation of interventions, but so too do researchers need to understand the policy-making process to ensure their research evidence is relevant and presented in such a way that policy-makers can use it. 

“Building the capacity of policy-makers to analyse and use evidence is only one part of the story. Building the capacity of researchers to develop suitable and accessible evidence is equally important to effectively link it to real policy engagement,” explains PSPPD programme manager Mastoera Sadan. “Good quality research can help to uncover the extent of problems, and the underlying causes. This is important in deciding where to focus, as well as what interventions are needed to address the root causes.” 

From research to reality

This process of systematically harnessing the best available evidence to inform policy-making, called evidence-based policy-making (EBPM), is internationally advocated for its potential to contribute to effective policy. Capacity-building interventions aimed at building both demand for, and supply of, evidence have emerged as crucial tools for the promotion of EBPM, with practitioners agreeing on the necessity to balance the dominance of supply-driven approaches with complementary activities to strengthen the capacity and motivation of policy-makers to understand and use research evidence for policy-making. 

However, as Sadan points out, the reality is that the use of research in policy-making and implementation is also often a matter of timing. The current policy agenda, for example, is very focused on early childhood development (ECD). Research illustrates that access to quality ECD services and care in the early years of a child’s life has significant impact on future education, earnings, health and longevity. As a policy and programme priority, ECD is associated with a package of services aimed at enabling healthy development, which requires co-ordinated, collaborative efforts from multiple government departments.

Several PSPPD-funded research projects are exploring this area, such as the Centre for Early Childhood Development’s study, which aims to analyse, review and evaluate ECD programme options to influence policy changes so that children have greater access to quality ECD programmes, which will in turn reduce poverty and inequality. In terms of tangible outcomes, the project expects to deliver detailed ECD programme option guidelines, including the cost of each option, which can be implemented to effectively reach a relatively high number of children. 

Another project, by the Project Preparation Trust, is investigating a new area-based approach for improved and up-scaled ECD services for the urban poor. Currently, most children within informal settlements are cared for within informal, unregistered ECD centres that generally provide insufficient stimulation and care by poorly trained caregivers. 

Such centres are often not on the official “radar” of government, do not form part of the “system” and do not benefit from related support programmes; most of their children are therefore left highly vulnerable and disadvantaged. 

This project will therefore initiate and rollout a new ECD support programme in eThekwini Municipality for informal, unregistered ECD centres to collect evidence for the acceptance and mainstreaming of a new standard of basic, acceptable but less formal ECD care which will receive state support and inclusion into the South African ECD system.

“Although the new policy will be going to Cabinet quite soon and these projects are only likely to be completed in 2016, given that this is a very challenging and complex issue, they will still be able to feed into the implementation plan,” says Sadan. “This demonstrates that EBPM is not always a linear process and that the uptake of evidence in informing policy depends largely on its relevance at that time.”

Building a body of policy-relevant research

Mindful of the multiple, intergenerational, and inextricable dimensions of poverty and inequality in South Africa, the PSPPD aims to build a body of scholarship that contributes to the understanding of the country’s situational reality, and shapes the policies and programmes designed to address it through funded projects such as these. 

In order to produce this kind of policy-relevant research, the programme awards research grants to researchers within academic institutions. The grant awards are made on a competitive basis and importantly, because they are not commissioned projects, the beneficiaries of the grants retain intellectual property. 

“However, when academics are awarded these grants, part of their proposal has to be a plan on how to engage policy-makers on their research questions and findings, as well as how to increase the number of junior researchers and students that work on their research projects, so that they too gain exposure and experience in working on policy-relevant projects and engaging with policy-makers,” says Sadan.

The grants are awarded through two main mechanisms, the Calls for Proposals and Low Value Grants (LVGs), and the researchers are encouraged to make extensive use of the data from the DPME’s complementary panel study of income dynamics among South Africans, the National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS), to analyse their areas of interest. The most recent of these funded research projects are the LVGs, which, as the name suggests, are grants of a lower value, in this case not exceeding R110 000. 

This process was launched in November 2013, with the primary objective of building on and expanding the quantitative analysis skills of researchers by using the NIDS and South African Social Attitudes Survey data to address the overarching theme of “Improving the understanding of the dynamics of poverty and inequality”. The projects were divided into two sub-themes, social and economic, with six grants being awarded in March 2014 covering topics such as maternal and child migration, the dynamics of obesity and related risk factors, and youth labour market dynamics. 

What shapes the dynamics of poverty and inequality in South Africa?

Research from these grant projects and others make a significant contribution to our understanding of changing social dynamics, such as the study exploring maternal and child migration in post-apartheid South Africa by Katharine Hall from the Children’s Institute of the University of Cape Town. In line with government’s priority of addressing child-related issues, this study examines how children are affected by adult migration, and whether or not they themselves move. 

Much of the internal migration in South Africa remains associated with the historic and enforced fragmentation of families that took place under apartheid, but internal and oscillating labour migration remains an important livelihood strategy for many households, and extended and dual household forms endure. 

Given the growing interest in understanding patterns of mobility in South Africa, detailed studies of internal migration patterns are surprisingly scarce. In particular, little is known about family migration, or the dynamics of child mobility and care in relation to adult migration. This study presents analysis of data from NIDS to describe patterns of child migration, and the ways in which these patterns relate to maternal migration from a policy perspective.

This is just one of many examples of the work the Children’s Institute has undertaken independently and in partnership with the PSPPD. The organisation has also participated in collaborations and networks with both government and civil society, as well as implementing some of the most important child-related projects in the country, including the Children Count report, an ongoing data and advocacy project aimed at monitoring the situation of children in South Africa by developing, tracking and presenting child-centred statistics to a wide range of audiences, and the South African Child Gauge 2015.

Unemployment, education: where are we?

High on the national agenda is the issue of unemployment, particularly among the youth. “South Africa must find ways to urgently reduce alarming levels of youth unemployment and to provide young people with broader opportunities,” reiterates the NDP. 

“Unemployment is persistent amongst low skilled and less educated young people and those in economically depressed areas, as well as low skilled adults,” it reveals, pointing out that employment is the best form of social protection and that income support should be combined with active labour market policies as well as assistance and incentives that help people find employment. Social protection must provide unemployed people who are able to work with assistance that promotes employability and adaptability through various active labour market policies.

“Given this context, the need for the detailed study and analysis of the livelihoods of ordinary people in South Africa and how these are changing assumes particular importance,” explain the researchers behind another of the LVG projects, once again demonstrating the issue of timing when it comes to policy-relevant research. 

The study, entitled Reducing Poverty and Inequality: Actions to promote sustainable livelihoods in South Africa, by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), aims to make an initial contribution towards fulfilling this need and investigates the ways in which South Africans sustain themselves in the face of an increasingly complex marketplace and world. The research paid particular attention to the shocks that adversely affect households and the corresponding coping strategies they employ. 

The findings suggest that poverty continues to impact on the livelihoods of South Africans and that those identified as poor, unemployed, living in rural areas, having low levels of education, and poor social networks are particularly vulnerable. The study identified actions it hopes will contribute to the formulation and implementation of tangible, actionable policies that will ultimately improve the livelihoods of these vulnerable South Africans.  

Investigating youth labour market dynamics in South Africa, the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU), based in the School of Economics at the University of Cape Town, used the NIDS dataset to gain insights into the transition of youth from schooling to the labour market. The research revealed that there is a significant degree of “churning” (job-to-job movement) in the labour market for youth with a low degree of job stability. This suggests that policy has to be concerned not only with encouraging employment, but stability of employment should also be part of the discourse. 

The study further explains that in South Africa, the problem is not so much premature exit from secondary schooling, but a failure to pursue further studies. “This is most likely driven by resource constraints, even with recent campaigns by the South African government to ensure that finances are not an obstacle to further studies. The threat of labour market discouragement is also always looming. The challenge is in ensuring that youth remain active. With a given range of policies in place to assist youth, policy-makers have to recognise the importance of getting as many of the targeted youth using the resources available to them to mitigate the ill effects of unemployment,” say the researchers.  

The study also found that while the probability of employment improved with educational attainment, the unemployment rate is still uncomfortably high even for youth who have completed matric. The results suggest that education policies and better targeting of youth employment initiatives might yield substantial benefits for the youth unemployment situation in South Africa.

Inextricably linked to employment, another team from SALDRU, also using the NIDS, looked at the issue of education, specifically the impact of the no-fee school policy. “One of the hallmarks of apartheid was highly differential educational expenditure and quality of schooling by race, with whites receiving the lion’s share of funding and attending well-resourced schools while Africans attended very poorly funded, low-resourced schools,” say the researchers. 

While there has been a strong emphasis on public expenditure redress since 1994 in order to provide quality educational access to all, school fees continue to make resources across schools very unequal, and resources available in schools remain strongly correlated with socioeconomic status. 

Enter the no-fee school policy, introduced in 2007 for the lowest socioeconomic schools in the hope of tackling this problem. The program abolished compulsory school fees in specified schools in order to protect households in the least socioeconomically advantaged sections of society. But has it worked? A program like this has many effects, but this study focuses on the effect of the no-fee school policy on enrolment, educational expenditure and school performance. The results of the study reveal no significant impact, either positive or negative, of the program on educational outcomes. 

The researchers did not find the results surprising, however, citing dropout and the fact that fees are not the primary education-related expense as reasons. Dropout is a cumulative process largely driven by prior performance in earlier grades. Therefore, even if fees are eliminated for a learner to continue with their education, for many it is already too late. 

The study also points out that although the elimination of fees alleviated a large financial burden within poor households, other school-related costs, uniforms in particular, often dwarf the cost of fees. In addition, the funding was insufficient to address the backlog in school resources and public school budgets are fairly inflexible, making it difficult for individual schools to target the most appropriate resources for their particular requirements. 

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The study does provide a number of policy implications and recommendations for addressing the problem of poor educational outcomes in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities.

Who is getting fat in South Africa? And who is getting tested?

Perhaps a less obvious area in the understanding of the dynamics of poverty and inequality is that of obesity, but this is a growing epidemic in South Africa with many negative implications. Food insecurity, and resulting malnutrition, is a significant area of concern for the country, particularly as regards children. 

It is widely recognised that inadequate nutrition can lead to stunted growth and affect the health, growth and learning abilities of young children, as well as the productivity of adults. But not as well known is that often in the same communities and households, obesity contributes significantly to the incidence of chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, cancer and coronary artery disease. Another recipient of a LVG is Health Systems Trust, which is exploring obesity trends and risk factors in the South African adult population, in its Who is getting fat in South Africa? study. 

“The prevalence of obesity and overweight globally is on the rise, and the trend is especially worrying in South Africa, where the proportion of people who are overweight and obese has increased remarkably in the last decades,” say the researchers. The study analysed trends in body mass index (BMI), prevalence of obesity, who is at higher risk of gaining weight, and what the risk factors are, such as tobacco use, alcohol consumption and level of physical activity. 

Like obesity, HIV is another epidemic affecting all sections of our society. HIV counselling and testing (HCT) is a pivotal component of global HIV prevention and treatment efforts and this past decade has seen South Africa make considerable progress in increasing the proportion of individuals tested for HIV, especially with the launch of the world’s largest HCT campaign in 2010. 

“While this is both impressive and unprecedented, it is unclear whether the campaign was able to reach individuals who had never tested before, as well as those with the highest risk of contracting HIV in their lifetime,” explain the recipients of the LVG study, which set out to find out whether, and to what extent, this national HIV testing campaign reached poor and at-risk individuals as well as previously untested populations. Given known racial, gender, and socioeconomic disparities in access and uptake of testing, the researchers, also from SALDRU, focused their analysis specifically on these populations.

Their results indicate that the country’s national HIV testing campaign did indeed yield substantial growth in the number of individuals testing for HIV for the first time. “Our estimates suggest that over a third of HIV tests conducted were for people who had never tested before. This is a significant achievement, and future initiatives to increase HCT uptake would gain from lessons learned from the South African effort,” say the researchers. 

“Our findings also highlight some key areas where targeted interventions can help build on this success, such as better spatial matching of future HCT resources to areas with higher HIV risk burdens, revealed by geographic differences in testing rates, and the development of interventions that specifically target less educated individuals, men, and younger populations.” The study reveals a persistence of gender and education-related inequities in HIV testing, despite the extraordinary effort aimed at testing all South Africans, suggesting that novel interventions may be required to achieve universal HCT access and uptake.

Remaining relevant

Preceding the Low Value Grants, the first Call for Proposals in the second phase of the Programme, which was launched in May 2013, illustrates the longevity of high-quality, relevant research. This grant-awarding mechanism invited research organisations, academic institutions and think tanks to apply for research funding under the theme “Working towards eliminating poverty and reducing inequality: addressing the implementation challenge”. 

The research was expected to analyse, review and evaluate government’s policies and interventions around poverty and inequality. In the social sector, project topics included education, health, social cohesion, crime, developmental social welfare, and child poverty and inequality.

In the economic sector, they included employment and unemployment, livelihood strategies, industrial and sector studies (agriculture, mining, services), as well as land reform and agriculture. 

The Centre for Early Childhood Development and Project Preparation Trust studies around ECD were just two of these projects.

Likewise, the second Call for Proposals, launched in 2014 under the theme “Addressing the poverty and inequality challenge”, produced eight research grants, again covering themes across the social and economic sectors, ranging from child-centred studies looking at family contexts, child support grants, child wellbeing outcomes, and education, to job counselling, productivity signals, employment, and the development of small, medium and micro enterprises. 

This research is still underway and, as with all the PSPPD research projects, is extremely topical in the context of South Africa’s current issues, such as the study by the University of the Witwatersrand led by Professor Linda Richter, which aims to provide longitudinal perspectives on violence in the lives of children. While violence against children is pervasive and widespread, it is largely undocumented and inadequately researched. As a consequence, it is frequently treated as a marginal social issue attributed to the violent predisposition of isolated individuals. We know that violence against children causes significant personal suffering and long-term ill-health, poor psychological adjustment, and a range of social difficulties, including adverse effects inter-generationally, but this study seeks to quantify the exposure to risk factors for and expressions of violence towards South African children over the timespan of childhood through an analysis of data from NIDS as well as the landmark Birth to Twenty Plus (Bt20+) study. 

The PSPPD-funded research, together with the complementary NIDS, plays a central role in providing a more comprehensive, qualitatively- and quantitatively-informed evidence base for policy decision makers and critical role players within the policy framework. For example, in 2009 in phase one of the Programme, along with producing a series of policy briefs and funding a number of smaller research projects, the PSPPD issued a Call for Proposals under the theme “Eradicating poverty and inequality: Towards well-targeted programmes that strengthen the impact of public policy, harness human capability and promote self-sufficiency”, through which 13 research projects were awarded to nine universities and the HSRC. 

The grant topics were divided into five themes — child poverty, education, employment and livelihood strategies, health, and social cohesion — and many of these projects were used extensively in policy debate and development, such as the “Low quality education as a poverty trap in South Africa” study, led by Professor Servaas van der Berg from the Department of Economics at the University of Stellenbosch. The central question underlying this research was whether the quality of education in South Africa is so low that it serves to trap children from poor communities in an ongoing cycle of poverty.

But in order for this evidence to be used effectively, no matter how relevant, better dialogue, partnerships, and collaboration across the academic and policy-making fields is needed. It is widely acknowledged on both sides that, while there has been a significant improvement in recent years, some misalignment does still exist between policy-makers and academic researchers. This results in low uptake of research in policy development and implementation, and research that is not relevant to government’s priorities. 

Bridging the academic and policy-making worlds

For researchers to be able to advocate for policy-makers to use evidence to inform policy, they need to understand policy-making processes and policy-makers, including their priorities, political agendas, individual passions and goals, and time constraints. They also need to present their research findings in a way that is easily applicable to ensure they are optimally used within the policy arena. Likewise, policy-makers need to be able to understand and value the evidence that research can bring to their decision-making processes. 

Supporting effective supply of research to policy-makers is important — but such efforts will not lead to evidence-based policy-making unless there is also demand for research from policy-makers. Providing the opportunity for policy-makers to gain the requisite skills and knowledge for understanding and engaging with quantitative research methods is vital to strengthen their position by being better able to generate policy responses geared towards addressing critical social problems. 

Creating platforms for improved engagement and knowledge sharing, better accessibility of research, and capacity building of both parties to, among others, develop their critical thinking and support a change in practice, has been a core objective of the PSPPD since its inception. 

Part of its strategy has been to demonstrate the value offered by data to policy-makers on the one hand, while supporting researchers with the technical skills needed to translate this data into accessible evidence, such as training on how to write policy briefs, which synthesise research findings and present policy implications and recommendations and can therefore serve as an excellent tool for facilitating evidence-informed policy-making. In choosing an approach to capacity building, the focus should be on evidence-informed policy, which implies a change in behaviour or culture, rather than policy influence, to affect a change in outcome. 

Furthermore, research has revealed that linked events, designed to bridge the divide between researchers and policy-makers, contribute to influencing perceptions and breaking stereotypes that researchers and policy-makers have about each other, as well as enhancing knowledge and skills of policy-makers, and influencing research priorities. 

Engagement does not only need to happen between the academic and policy-making worlds, but within them as well. Rarely, if ever, are issues the domain of a single government department or a specific sector. Rather, interventions require the input of multiple stakeholders, from within and outside of government. Likewise, not just one piece of research will inform a policy; a range of evidence will be used and for this reason, it is equally important for researchers to network and collaborate with each other as well. 

One of the PSPPD’s main vehicles for these linked events has been the hosting of workshops aimed at providing a platform for engagement among researchers from various academic and research institutions as well as government departments. 

Joint learning opportunities like these facilitate greater critical engagement and reflection, allowing participants to more readily interact with the information and also engage in honest discussion as to the relevance and implications of the information to social and economic policy challenges. They are also instrumental in improving the relationship between policy-makers and researchers. 

These capacity-building and training components of the PSPPD are implemented by the Programme’s Learning Facility, established in 2014 to assist in achieving its aim of transforming accumulated knowledge around pro-poor policy and projects into a state capability. The Learning Facility provides knowledge solutions to increase research uptake and support the development of policies that are responsive to the realities of poverty and inequality in South Africa, as well as fund research that integrates the impacts of current policies. It also looks at how to build platforms for critical engagement and alignment with the NDP, as well as for the support of institutionalising the linkage between research, monitoring and evaluation, and policy-making. Central to the work of the Learning Facility is enabling the PSPPD to serve effectively as a national-level institution that fosters linkage and exchange across an evidence-based policy-making system. 

Through these capacity building activities and research grants, the PSPPD aims to be an exemplar learning institution, empowering policy-makers to employ better methods to make use of different kinds of knowledge, and improving systems to ensure researchers make the right knowledge available to decision-makers timeously. In so doing, the programme hopes to achieve its ultimate overall objective of improving the living conditions of South Africans by halving poverty and unemployment, in line with the Millennium Development Goals in the last 15 years, and the Sustainable Development Goals in the next 15.