What he packs in his suitcase when heading into the field: “Very little.”
Steven Chapman’s Twitter page notes that “without measurement we are guessing.” It reflects his job as a data guru – and his employer’s heavy reliance on numbers crunching. That employer, the U.K.-based Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, relies on data to ensure the development programs it funds deliver the biggest bang for the buck. Created more than a decade ago, CIFF aims to improve the lives of poor and vulnerable children living in poverty in developing countries.
The charitable organization’s work focuses on children and mothers’ health and nutrition, children’s education, deworming and welfare, and “smart ways to slow down and stop climate change.” It has funded a number of World Bank projects involving children’s nutrition, basic education, and early childhood development.
We spoke with Chapman about his work, his interests, and what he likes to do in his spare time (hint: “real tennis”). The interview was edited for clarity and length.
Tell us about your job at CIFF.
This organization has been very evidence-driven since its founding. Our leadership understands that if you don’t have good data you’re only guessing at what will work. At CIFF, we learn through data. We make decisions based on data. We measure our success through data.
My team’s job is to provide evidence to colleagues who are in charge of deciding whether to make a grant. Once it’s awarded, we also provide input on how to monitor that grant and advice on course correction if the program indicators are going in the wrong direction. Finally, we commission an independent evaluation to measure whether the program had an impact on the issue, be it health, climate change, nutrition, deworming or education.
How do you pick which programs to fund?
We want to demonstrably improve perinatal mortality, adolescent reproductive health, deworming, stunting, early learning, child slavery and climate change mitigation. These goals stem from the OECD Framework for measuring well-being and progress, with its focus on quality of life, material living conditions, and sustainability, and are in line with the new Sustainable Development Goals being adopted at the United Nations now. For CIFF, it is not enough for children to simply survive – they must also thrive. By the age of 20, they should have had a quality education. They should be the proper height and weight. They shouldn’t have worms. And they shouldn’t be in a world where global warming poses a major threat.
Why did CIFF choose to fund the Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund?
We knew that the World Bank and particularly SIEF were very well placed to identify opportunities for evaluation of early childhood development and education programs. We also partner with the World Bank on a number of different grants, and they’ve been a very good partner for us. Their global reach is fantastic and the quality of their work is world class.
What keeps you up at night from your work?
Threats to the validity of an evaluation. To conduct a high-quality evaluation, you have to design and fund it properly, you have to collect data carefully, and you have to analyze it correctly. If you make mistakes along the way, that reduces the evaluation’s validity. A simple example would be at the design phase: Say you underestimate the number of people you need to interview to see if the intervention was effective. If you do, even if the intervention has been effective, the survey will not be able to tell you that.
Tell us about one of the most gratifying events in your work.
There’s a great story about a U.S.-based NGO we funded called Living Goods. It has a program in Uganda where they established a network of Community Health Promoters, very similar to Avon ladies, who live in very poor communities. Living Goods sets them up with things to sell, including consumer goods from soap to sanitary pads to health products like fortified foods and oral rehydration salts. They promote and deliver these products to their communities, using their cell phones to record their interactions with people and to stay in touch with supervisors.
We evaluated the program and found a 26 percent reduction in under-5 mortality. The intervention took place in about 100 villages and we compared promoters working there with another 100 control villages. This is an extraordinary result and it was done cost effectively. We’re partnering with Living Goods now to start a second, larger scale project.
What do you like to read when you travel?
I read a lot of work-related material, of course, but I also enjoy a novel, which I’ll read on the plane and before falling asleep. Some of the more recent books I’ve read include: The Sunrise (by Victoria Hislop), The Goldfinch (by Donna Tart) and The Dream Lover (by William Boyd).
What do you pack in your suitcase when traveling to developing nations?
Very little. I try to travel with a single small bag. I’ll have a computer, but usually no other or very few printed documents, a second pair of trousers and shoes, shirts and things for a week, and ear buds so I can listen to music.
How do you like to decompress in your spare time?
One unusual thing I do is real tennis. It’s the original form of tennis and it’s similar to today’s lawn tennis – but it’s also very different. The saying “to cut to the chase” comes from this game. When we hit the ball, we cut it – we use a downward swing to the racquet, creating a backspin, rather than an upward, topspin swing. If you do this correctly, it creates a scoring situation – a chase – no longer known in the modern game, essentially giving the loser of the point a second chance to win the point, but the court’s dimensions become smaller during that second chance, which makes winning the point back extremely difficult.
Yes, it is as complicated as it seems to learn and execute properly. But it is also fascinating. In that sense, it’s not unlike the work we do to try to improve children’s lives: It’s complicated, it’s hard to figure out, but once you get it right, you win big. In development, that means improved well-being. And that’s what’s so gratifying about the work I do.