The Social Observatory

The Social Observatory, a part of the World Bank’s Development Research Group, is an effort to improve the adaptive capacity of anti-poverty projects. Adaptive Capacity is the ability of projects to make everyday decisions, and modify project design, on the basis of high-quality descriptive, evaluative and process-oriented information. It involves the ability to see better, to learn better, and to adapt on the basis of that learning.


The Social Observatory helps projects develop adaptive capacity in the following ways:
Everyday Feedback: Developing decision support systems to provide project managers with an everyday understanding of the effectiveness of their design and management.
Long-Term Feedback: Evaluative qualitative and quantitative research to understand not just whether an intervention worked or failed, but why.
Process Feedback: Creating systems of Process Monitoring to uncover bottlenecks in the process of implementation.
Citizen Feedback: Creating data collection and visualization tools that allows communities to track and monitor their own progress.


Democratizing Data



Mixed Methods



Monitoring Is Hard



Therapy Not Prozac


Working with $2 billion portfolio of community driven development projects in India, the Social Observatory aims to improve ability to be nimble, to learn by doing, and to make mid-course corrections in management and design - in order to be effective.


World Bank assisted Community Driven Development project in Bihar, India.


Pudhu Vaazhvu

World Bank assisted Community Driven Development project in Tamil Nadu, India.



World Bank assisted Community Driven Development project in Odisha, India.

  • Do Self-help Groups Have an Economic and Social Impact?

    Evidence from a Randomized Trial
    The Bihar Rural Livelihoods (JEEViKA) Project is a World Bank–supported community-driven antipoverty project implemented by the government of Bihar, one of India’s poorest states. It attempts to reduce poverty and enhance gender equality by forming a network of women’s SHGs, which are then federated into village organizations and cluster-level federations. The core idea is to use the network of women’s groups as a “highway” on which to roll out a variety of “vertical” antipoverty interventions, such as microfinance, food security, and nutrition programs.
  • In-depth Qualitative Data Examines Why a Citizen Training experiment Failed

    Evidence from Karnataka
    Programs that induce citizen participation to improve the quality of government at the local level are the subjects of large amounts of funding and intense debate. This paper combines a randomized control trial of a citizenship training and facilitation program in rural India, with an in-depth, four-year ethnography of the intervention to understand the underlying mechanisms of change.
  • Sometimes Even Imperfect Evidence Can Be Useful to Assess Effectiveness of Public Investments in Anti-poverty Projects

    Retrospective Evidence from large-scale Livelihoods Projects in Bihar and Tamil Nadu
    Several livelihoods-focused community-drive development projects in India completed their first phase of operations in 2011. None of them had a credible impact evaluation. Despite this paucity of evidence, the project interventions were scaled up both within states and across the country through the National Rural Livelihoods Mission. This scale-up was based largely on anecdotal evidence and poorly designed program assessments. Two of the projects that were slated for significant scale-up were the Bihar Rural Livelihoods (JEEViKA) Project and the Tamil Nadu Empowerment and Poverty Reduction (Pudhu Vaazhvu) Project.
  • Do Community-based Food Security Programs Work?

    Evidence from Bihar
    Public transfer programs that allow beneficiaries to choose the transferred good may be more efficient, but the poorest beneficiaries may not participate if the good chosen is too costly. A model shows that program targeting and consumption impacts are tied to selected quality of the provided good. Evidence from a randomized trial in rural India in which groups of beneficiaries choose the variety of rice to be offered as a subsidized loan confirms that choosing lower cost goods self-targets the program towards the poorest beneficiaries. Consumption impacts are biggest for wealthiest households and may be negative for moderately poor households.
  • Can Anti-poverty Interventions Alter Entrenched Gender Norms?

    Evidence from Bihar
    This paper brings together sociological theories of culture and gender to answer the question – how do large-scale development interventions induce cultural change? Through three years of ethnographic work in rural Bihar, the authors examine this question in the context of Jeevika, a World Bank-assisted poverty alleviation project targeted at women, and find support for an integrative view of culture. The paper argues that Jeevika created new “cultural configurations” by giving economically and socially disadvantaged women access to a well-defined network of people and new systems of knowledge, which changed women’s habitus and broke down normative restrictions constitutive of the symbolic boundary of gender.

The Social Observatory, a part of the World Bank’s Development Research Group, is an effort to improve the adaptive capacity of anti-poverty projects. We work with the $2 billion portfolio of community driven development projects in India to improve their ability to be nimble, to learn by doing, and to make mid-course corrections in management and design -- in order to be effective.

We are an inter-disciplinary team of researchers- comprised of economists, sociologists, behavioral scientists and management information system specialists –that are embedded within projects to engage in an ongoing dialogue between research and operations in order to catalyze an improvement in the quality of implementation.

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    Vijayendra Rao

    Head of the SO and Lead Economist, World Bank
    Vijayendra Rao, a Lead Economist in the Development Research Group of the World Bank, is the Head of the Social Observatory, or the SO. He integrates his training in economics with theories and methods from anthropology, sociology and political science to study the social, cultural, and political context of extreme poverty in developing countries. At the SO, he leads an inter-disciplinary effort to improve the implementation of anti-poverty projects by building their “adaptive capacity”; i.e. the ability of projects to make everyday decisions, and modify project design, on the basis of high-quality descriptive, evaluative and process-oriented information.
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    Nethra Palaniswamy

    Former coordinator of the SO and Economist, World Bank
    Nethra Palaniswamy is the Coordinator of the Social Observatory (SO). She works on translating the principles that underlie the SO’s model of building adaptive capacity into field level implementation. She coordinates the SO’s work program and leads the implementation of all monitoring, tracking, and evaluation activities in the Tamil Nadu Empowerment and Poverty Reduction (Pudhu Vaazhvu) Project and the Odisha Rural Livelihoods (TRIPTI) Project. Prior to joining the SO, she worked on impact evaluations of Community Driven Development Programs at the World Bank’s Development Impact Evaluation Initiative, and was a Senior Research Analyst working on the local governance research program at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington DC. Nethra holds an M.S. in Agricultural and Applied Economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an M.A. in Economics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, India.
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    Upamanyu Datta

    Economist, World Bank
    Upamanyu Datta is an Economist with the Social Observatory and his main responsibility is to assist rural livelihood projects in several states to develop an effective Monitoring & Evaluation system. His current work includes the quantitative evaluation of the Bihar Rural Livelihoods (JEEViKA) Project project to examine its effect on the multiple dimensions of household welfare that the project targeted, developing an effective Decision Support System for the same project, and coordinating the baseline survey to track the effects of the Maharashtra State Rural Livelihoods Mission (UMED) project in the western state of Maharashtra. Upamanyu Datta has a PhD in Agricultural & Resource Economics from the University of Maryland, College Park. He received a Master’s degree in Economics from Jadavpur University, Kolkata.
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    Samrat Kumar Ghosh

    DSS Specialist, World Bank
    Samrat Kumar Ghosh is a DSS Specialist who designs and develops Information Systems for the Social Observatory (SO), to support the implementation of World Bank-assisted livelihoods projects in India. Samrat works intensively with projects to build its monitoring capacity, from developing monitoring guidelines and designing books of progress records, to identifying and defining measurable indicators that need to be monitored, as well as designing information systems that can track these indicators. Prior to joining the SO, Samrat worked with Intrahealth International in designing, developing and implementing IT and ICT products on livelihoods, education, microfinance and health. Samrat has a Master’s degree in Agriculture from Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya, West Bengal as well as a Management degree in Rural Development from KIIT School of Rural Management, Bhubaneswar, Odisha.
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    Manivannan Govindaraj

    Field Coordinator, World Bank
    Manivannan Govindaraj is a field coordinator with the Social Observatory (SO) who manages and monitors a range of survey activites from training enumerators to monitoring data collection activities as well as entering and translating data. He also assists with implementing and testing technical systems currently being used for a large-scale participatory tracking survey that measures community well-being in Tamil Nadu. Prior to joining the SO, Manivannan worked with the Tamil Nadu Empowerment and Poverty Reduction (Pudhu Vaazhvu) Project as a Junior Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist. Manivannan has a Master’s degree in Computer Applications from Madurai Kamaraj University and a Bachelor's of Commerce degree from M.S.S Wakf Board College.
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    Nandini Krishnan

    Senior Economist, World Bank
    Nandini Krishnan is a Senior Economist with the Poverty Global Practice. She currently works on poverty in Iraq and the Philippines, on a multi-country survey of host communities and Syrian refugees, regional and corporate initiatives for data and monitoring the Twin Goals, and supports DECRG's Social Observatory team. She has worked on labor market issues in Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, on gender in Yemen, the Palestinian territories and the MENA region, and supported impact evaluations of large scale projects and programs in Tanzania, Nigeria, and South Africa. She holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Boston University.
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    Shruti Majumdar

    Sociologist, World Bank
    Shruti Majumdar is a Sociologist with the Social Observatory (SO), and her primary responsibility is to lead a team of qualitative researchers that is assessing the impact of World Bank assisted livelihoods projects in India. Employing a multitude of ethnographic methods such as oral histories, semi-structured interviews, focus groups and participant observation, she is currently developing an overall assessment of the impact of the Bihar Rural Livelihoods (JEEViKA) Project on women’s empowerment. Prior to joining the SO, Shruti was a consultant in the Social Development Department at the World Bank and worked on a range of topics interfacing with social accountability including fragile and conflict states, Community Driven Development and impact evaluations. Shruti holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in Sociology from Brown University, and a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi University.
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    Smriti Sakhamuri

    Research Associate, World Bank
    Smriti Sakhamuri is a Research Associate with the Social Observatory (SO) where she manages and analyzes research efforts that assess the impact of World Bank-assisted livelihoods projects in various states in India. Currently, she is utilizing her experience in research design and quantitative data analysis to implement a large-scale participatory tracking survey that measures community well-being and project implementation in Tamil Nadu. Prior to joining the SO, Smriti was a research associate at Development Analytics and assisted in generating capacity building tools for CABRI member countries’ agricultural and finance ministries, in order to conduct impact evaluations. She has also worked on multiple projects as a program associate at DevInfo, that range from establishing a global monitoring and evaluation e-learning platform to developing a multi-hazard mapping tool to aid government agencies in risk informed planning. Smriti holds a Master's degree in Applied Economics from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and a Bachelor's degree in Mathematics (with honors) from the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom.
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    Sonya Fatah

    Former Communications Consultant
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    Sudarshan Gopalan

    Design Thinker
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    Gautam Sonti

    Documentary Film Maker


The Social Observatory has been primarily funded thanks to the contributions of (1) UK Aid from the UK government; (2) the Australian Department's of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT); and (3) the European Commission (EC) through the South Asia Food and Nutrition Security Initiative (SAFANSI), which is administered by the World Bank. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK, EC or Australian government's official policies or the policies of the World Bank and its Board of Executive Directors. We are grateful to SAFANSI and its donors for their support.


The Social Observatory team is also grateful for support from 3ie, the World Bank's Research Support Budget, and the South Asia Gender Empowerment (SAGE) fund.

Vijayendra Rao