2016 Workshop PictureThe 2016 evidence workshop. Source: FOMILENIO II

Thanks to a commitment to monitor and evaluate the impact of its investments, and a focus on using data and evidence to get results, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) generates a lot of evidence on “what works” to improve economic growth and development in its partner countries in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. However, do partner country governments use the evidence generated by MCC-funded programs to inform their policies and planning? Or are those valuable lessons on “what works” forgotten as MCC and its partners move on to new priorities? In July 2016, MCC held a workshop in El Salvador intended to make better use of the evidence generated by its own investments in the country, and followed up with a Monitoring and Evaluation training for policymakers one year later. How did participants apply the evidence and learning to their work, and what helped or hindered them from doing so? What has changed in the two years since the initial workshop, and what challenges remain for using evidence in government policy?

At Results for All, we are committed to shining a spotlight on good practice initiatives that promote the systematic use of evidence in government decision-making. We have studied other evidence use training programs, such as this one in Ghana, and interrogated to what extent individual policymakers are able to apply what they learn to their work, noting the challenge of creating lasting impact with these programs. We wanted to help MCC tell the story of their work in El Salvador, see what lessons from this experience resonate with our previous research, and identify what insights could be shared to advance evidence-informed policymaking in other contexts. In this two-part blog series, we describe the programs held in El Salvador in 2016 and 2017, follow up with Salvadoran policymakers and partners to consider the impact of the activities, and discuss implications for furthering evidence-informed policymaking in El Salvador and other countries.

Development Assistance Grounded in Partnership: The MCC Model in El Salvador

The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) is a foreign aid agency of the U.S. government, created by Congress in 2004, which supports economic growth, poverty reduction, and institutional strengthening in developing countries with good governance. By focusing on selective countries with good policies, and emphasizing country ownership, evidence-based programs, and rigorous monitoring and evaluation, the MCC model helps to ensure that U.S. dollars are well spent to get cost-effective results.

How it works: MCC provides time-limited grants to competitively selected partner countries. To be eligible for the five-year “compacts,” countries must pass the MCC Scorecard, a set of independent (non-MCC) indicators related to good governance, economic freedom, and investing in citizens. Countries close to passing the eligibility criteria can receive small “threshold” grants to support policy and institutional reform, to help improve their policy performance in key areas and work towards future collaboration with MCC. Once selected, partner country governments work with MCC to design programs that align with national development priorities, and refine plans through consultations with civil society and the private sector. Countries must then establish a Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), a local accountable government entity responsible for implementing the grant funds, which are also subject to rigorous and independent monitoring and evaluation to assess the impacts of the MCC-funded programs.

MCC in El Salvador: MCC has awarded two five-year compacts to El Salvador. The first, from 2007 to 2012, invested $461 million in education, public services, agricultural production, rural business development, and transportation infrastructure. The second compact, active from 2015 to 2020, will invest up to $277 million (with an additional $88 million contributed by the Government of El Salvador) in regulatory reforms, education, and logistical infrastructure to increase El Salvador’s productivity and competitiveness in international markets, in order to promote economic growth and private investment in the country.

The compacts are implemented by Fondo del Milenio, commonly referred to as FOMILENIO, the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) or entity responsible for the MCC investments in El Salvador. For the second compact, FOMILENIO II is led by the Presidency’s Technical and Planning Secretariat (SETEPLAN, for its Spanish acronym) and includes representatives from federal ministries, civil society and academia, the private sector, subnational governments, and MCC.

A Bigger Bang for the Buck: A Workshop to Make Better Use of Evidence Already Generated

Early in the second compact, MCC and FOMILENIO II hosted a workshop (Spanish) entitled “Closing the Gap: Strengthening the Ties between Evaluation and Policy,” which aimed to promote the use of evidence generated through MCC investments in the design and implementation of new government programs and policies. In essence, the workshop sought to take stock of the knowledge acquired through previous MCC-funded work in El Salvador, and help Salvadoran policymakers identify where it could be applied to make further progress on government priorities.

Over 180 policymakers, practitioners, and researchers attended the event, held in San Salvador on July 28, 2016. Plenary sessions discussed MCC and FOMILENIO I achievements and the importance of using impact evaluations for policy, planning, and budgeting purposes. Representatives from MCC, the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), USAID, Mathematica Policy Research, and other partners then presented the results of the evaluations of MCC-funded projects to improve education and El Salvador’s investment climate. Participants discussed the findings and ways to incorporate that knowledge into new programs and policies.

“As part of the workshop, participants committed to use the lessons learned to improve education, gender, and legal and regulatory policy to make the business climate more competitive and help ensure that better educated students can find higher paying jobs in El Salvador.” (MCC’s Statistically Speaking Newsletter, January 2017)

The evidence workshop provides a good example of collaboration between MCC and an in-country Millennium Challenge Account and offers a relatively simple strategy to promote evidence-informed policymaking – and a continued return on MCC investments – by jointly brainstorming how to make better use of evidence already generated by MCC-funded programs.

Findings from MCC’s First Compact with El Salvador: Supporting Technical Education

At the July evidence workshop, MCC and FOMILENIO partners presented final evaluation findings from already concluded MCC-funded programs. For example, Mathematica Policy Research presented findings from the evaluation of the Formal Technical Education Sub-activity. The sub-activity included a scholarship program meant to increase graduation rates from post-secondary technical-vocational schools. The results? Boys who were given scholarships to the technical-vocational schools were more likely to graduate compared to boys who did not receive scholarships. Their graduation rates, 80% vs 63%, differed by a statistically significant 27%, suggesting that scholarships are an effective means to increase boys’ graduation rates. However, the difference for girls, 77% vs 76%, was not significant. Why the variation? We can hypothesize that scholarships may serve as a stronger motivator for boys than girls because they reduce boys’ incentives to emigrate or find low-skilled work to provide for their families, which is common in El Salvador.

Importantly, the evaluation also found that graduation from a technical-vocational school did not guarantee higher income, sometimes because the skills taught by the program did not match those needed by local employers. Early collaboration with the private sector in the design of technical curriculum is therefore essential.

Enabling Evidence Use: Tiered M&E Training for Public Officials

After the initial evidence workshop, the Government of El Salvador requested a certificate course for relevant ministries and implementing entities, to improve the M&E capacity in government. In response, MCC and FOMILENIO II worked with J-PAL to deliver three sets of trainings (Spanish) from June to August 2017. The trainings aimed to show how impact evaluation findings and other evidence can be used to improve public policies and results for citizens, identify challenges to evidence-informed policymaking and strategies to overcome them, and enhance relevant skills in monitoring and evaluation. The first targeted high-level public officials, principally ministers and directors, while the second brought in mid-level public officials responsible for project design and implementation and included more technical information. The third training was designed for M&E specialists and technical staff, with more emphasis on statistics and econometrics and other skills needed to conduct, coordinate, or supervise the evaluation of public policies and projects.

In addition to enhancing the skills of participants, the training was meant to create a cadre of professionals that could form a potential Monitoring and Evaluation Committee supported by the Presidency’s Technical and Planning Secretariat, a plan that could help to institutionalize the use of evidence in policy and planning decisions.

Beyond Sharing Evidence and Building Skills: Assessing Changes Two Year Later

This blog introduced the partnership between MCC and the Government of El Salvador, and described the evidence workshop held in July 2016 and follow-on trainings held one year later. How did policymakers in El Salvador apply what they learned in the workshop and training to their work in government? What helped or hindered them from doing so? How have their attitudes toward evidence and their motivation to use it changed in the last two years, and why? To answer these questions, the second blog in this series features interviews with policymakers who organized and participated in the workshop and trainings, and discusses what remaining challenges impede policymakers from using evidence in El Salvador, and how MCC and other donors can help.

Ari Gandolfo is Projects and Partnerships Manager at Results for All, a global initiative dedicated to helping policymakers use data and evidence to improve the lives of citizens. We are committed to highlighting and accelerating the spread of good practices for evidence use in government, developing tools and resources to support policymakers, and building innovative partnerships and networks to recognize and promote peer learning among evidence champions in government. You can find other training programs and evidence-informed policymaking initiatives we have studied here. In particular, you may want to look at this case study on evidence use training for civil servants in Ghana, or the many other programs we summarize in this table that aim to build policymaker knowledge, skill, and motivation to use evidence in government.