Research Roundtable: Sustaining Nutrition Policy through Presidential Transitions

Research Roundtable: Sustaining Nutrition Policy through Presidential Transitions


Hello, welcome to Research Roundtable! I’m Annette Brown, Principal Economist here at FHI 360. I’m here today with my colleague Jessica Escobar-Alegria. Jessica and her co-authors, Edward Frongillo and Christine Blake, published some research called “Sustainability of food and nutrition security policy during presidential transitions.” They published this in Food Policy in 2019 and Jessica and I are gonna chat about it today. So, why don’t you start first Jessica by telling us what you research question for this was for this study. Yes, so we were interested in understanding how governments managed to continue a policy across a transition of presidents, and being able to maintain efforts to prevent food and nutrition insecurity. Yeah, so how to maintain policies across administrations is relevant everywhere – great question! How did you think about this research idea? Where did you come up with it? Well we started long ago, back in 2008 I was working in my home country, El Salvador and we went through a very important presidential transition, so I started observing events during the campaign, the elections and the take office, that affected what we were doing. And then I realized there was a gap in the knowledge. Well, that’s how good research starts. But this study isn’t about El Salvador, it’s about Guatemala. So, why Guatemala? Well Guatemala, it’s an interesting case. They have a very short presidential term and their constitution establishes that they cannot repeat a president. And historically, no party have repeated office, so they just have these very drastic changes and the food and nutrition security policy carried through. Additionally, Guatemala has a very important group of actors that knew about how to transition and had worked in this policy and could speak to this topic. Oh, great, great. So, let’s move talking a little bit about the research: You use a grounded theory approach here – what is that? Well, that’s an approach for qualitative research that basically, uses theory emerging from the case and with that, we give meaning to the data to respond to the research question. So instead of starting with a theoretical framework, you’re letting the data help you reveal what theories might be at play. Exactly. And so, in order to do this I’m so impressed by the amount of data you collected and the different types of data that you’re using here. So tell us a little bit about those. Yes, so we are using four data sources. Our primary data source, meaning the source we use to respond to the research questions, are the interviews. Okay. And then three other data sources are news articles, public speeches and technical documents. So we basically, triangulated the reports from the interviewees to themes that emerge in these other data sources. Oh, okay, great! So you’re taking the themes that people are saying, but you’re backing them up or confirming them from what you’re seeing in these other sources. Interesting. And so from that work, you identify 12 forces that support the sustainability of policies across transitions, and 12 forces that inhibit the sustainability of policy. Yeah, but let me tell you that the same number, it was a coincidence. We did not intend it to be the same. We basically from the reports of interviewees, when they told us reasons for sustaining – if they told us a really new reason that hadn’t been mentioned before then we started creating a new category. That ended up being the forces. And so, but you ended up with 12 and 12 – well, symmetry is good! Can you give us an example of one of the forces for sustainability and one force against so that we have an idea of what you identified. Yeah, for example, a force for sustaining the policy is that it’s institutionally sound, and that means that those implementing the policy come with the institutional structure to put it in place. Like an agency, or a department – Exactly. Norms, paths to operationalize the policy. Okay, okay. And a force against? Yeah, a force against sustaining, it’s, for example, unsteady resources and that means, that… those entities in charge of policy implementation lack the resources they need. For example, finance… financial resources, or personnel An important report is massive change of government employees and that limits transfer capacities or historic memory. That makes sense. So, a lot of my work is around evidence-based policymaking and so I was looking through your “forces for” expecting to find evidence, or evidence-based policymaking and I didn’t see it. Does evidence not matter here? Oh , absolutely. So, evidence emerged in two of the forces. One is backed up And that means that those implementing the policy inform the performance on impact evaluations, cost-effectiveness analysis and the force is strategic. So, and that means that those performing actions use knowledge that is documented to act and not unfounded assumptions. Great, great. I’m always happy to hear that people think evidence is part of strategic thinking. Yeah, but just let me tell you: evidence is very important and I will say, not having evidence-based actions will make a policy very unlikely to be sustained, but it’s not enough. So, it’s sort of, the absence of evidence showed up in your “forces against,” just like the presence of evidence showed up in some of your “forces for.” Yes. So, do you need all 12 “forces for” in order to sustain a policy? Well, not necessarily. So depending on which action of the policy you’re working and the context and your allies, you identify we will say, the “low-hanging fruits.” And those policies… and those forces it’s easy for you to potentiate and those that it’s easy for you to inhibit. And Guatemala, for example, a force that it’s a must is shared, and that means teams in Guatemala you know from private sector to academia, international community to practitioners, they understood the problem and were working in the most part toward the same direction and that benefited sustaining the policy. A force that I will leave for less of a priority it’s, for example, antagonistic underlying structures. And that means that if there’s a social norm that does not help the policy, it’s very unlikely you’re going to change it in a term. Right. So you want to work in the long term on it. But for the next administration, you want to work around it. Right, and so, understanding the forces, some of them are forces that you try to actively use, right, and some of them are things that you need to understand how to work around. Right. Great. So, now that you learned all this from your research, how does that change the work that you’re doing? Well, definitely I’m always aware of where the next transition is happening. Right now I work for a global nutrition initiative, Alive & Thrive, and our efforts are mostly for promoting and supporting breastfeeding from strengthening systems, to the actual policies. And so, two of our countries just had major national elections and so definitely it helps to understand beyond technical, what’s the political and institutional environment, and also to take into account when there’s a transition, events happen and that might delay your timelines. And if we bring it back to the forces, for example, the force I mentioned before, “shared,” if you want to maintain it, you want to understand how to frame breastfeeding, how the new administration speaks about it in ways that it keeps being relevant, for example. Great. That’s an example. Great, well this is really interesting research, and it’s always exciting to see how it can have an immediate impact on the kinds of work that we do in international development. Thank you all for joining us today for Research Roundtable with me, Annette Brown, and my guest, Jessica Escobar-Alegria.