‘Learning Toward Transformation’: A working paper from my time in Kenya

In the year following my graduation from college, and before starting up graduate studies at Michigan State, I lived and worked in Western Kenya. I was working with the Africa Theological Seminary, which was developing a new economic development program and wanted some evaluation work done on this new program.

When I arrived in Kitale, Kenya and realized that my first task was to convince a bunch of theologians and missionaries of some fundamental needs for a rigorous and credible program evaluation. We needed (1) a control group, (2) two survey rounds, and (3) random assignment – in order to achieve the so-called gold standard of program impact evaluation… the randomized control trial.

Ultimately, I was unsuccessful in arguing for random assignment, which (in hindsight) was probably for the best. But I was able to sufficiently argue for a control group and two survey rounds, in the form of a baseline and endline survey. With these features in place, we were able to implement a difference-in-differences evaluation methodology.

Now, the program I was evaluating was being implemented by the Africa Theological Seminary. This being the case, their goals were a little more involved than the typical secular development program. Not only did they want to inspire social and economic change, they also wanted to generate positive spiritual change. Many faith-based development programs (at least in theory) hold these desires. In fact, the desire is so popular it even has it’s own name: “transformational development”. Many well-known faith-based organizations – such as World Vision, Compassion International, World Renew, Hope International, and Partners Worldwide – make explicit their goals of so-called transformational development.

Unfortunately, the ‘credibility revolution‘ has not fully caught on within the faith-based development community. So there is a severe lack of knowledge of what works and what doesn’t in achieving the goals of “transformational development”. In my view, this is quite a shame, because there are a lot of things that the secular development community could learn from the faith-based development community (and vice versa) if only some faith-based organizations engaged in some rigorous program evaluations.

This is where my working paper comes into the fold. I report some of the findings from the Africa Theological Seminary program evaluation as well as develop a simple evaluation framework for transformational development programs. Here is the abstract of the paper:

Transformational development—integrating the three goals of positive material, social, and spiritual change—is a popular concept among organizations and individuals who work in faith-based development. Despite broad agreement about the theory of transformational development, very little research has been produced that empirically investigates how to best achieve these goals. By using a difference-in-differences empirical strategy this study provides an example of a simple, yet rigorous, evaluation approach for measuring real progress toward meeting the goals of material, social, spiritual change. While providing detailed explanations of the evaluation methodology, this study presents early impacts of a church-based business skills training program in Western Kenya. In this study I find little evidence of impacts of material and social change, which is not surprising given the evaluation took place over only 18 months. I do, however, find statistically significant and positive evidence of spiritual changes, specifically in attitudes towards faith integration in work and business.

The paper is currently out for review, but I’d love to hear feedback or critiques or comments.

“Faith and Business on the Razor’s Edge”: Some Post-Op Notes

During the past year I’ve had a distinct pleasure hanging out in Kenya working with Churches that work with businesspeople. Lately, the concept of integrating religious faith into business has been somewhat of a headline topic.

Yesterday, I had a piece run in the CRCNA’s Do Justice Blog, a publishing site (presumably) for members of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. The site is maintained by sub organizations the Center for Public Dialogue and the Office of Social Justice. Here are a few notes to supplement the reading:

The piece kind-of dances around the always-entertaining experience of driving in Kenya. I’ve written about this in more detail previously on this blog.

One of the important paragraphs talks about the complexity imbedded in simply warming a piece of bread to a crisp:

There are over 400 components that make up a toaster. These components are all made out of a number of different materials: copper, iron, nickel, plastic, and a few others. Of course none of these materials are used in the toaster as they are found in nature. Iron, copper, and nickel all need to be smelted and plastic (usually) is made from oil. Keep in mind that a toaster, which remarkably costs only the equivalent of roughly an hour of work, is just one product. Most estimates claim that at any given time there are upwards of 10 billion products available in our economy.

Here is the full video of the embedded link. Watch for the full story of the toaster along with much much more:

The whole point of sharing the story about the complexity inherent in a simple toaster is to show how incredibly complex we have made our modern world. The seemingly odd and sort-of funny thing about this is that my piece was tagged in the category “simple living”. I think simple living is something we should all strive for, but we must recognize how extraordinarily complex even the simplest life is in our modern reality.

Admittedly the piece comes off as a little vague, but that’s entirely the point. The world is so complex that if you’re certain what is best to do, then you’re probably not in a position to make any sort of decision with significant impact. I’m reminded again of one of my favorite movie quotes, “Certainty, as it turns out, is a luxury for those on the sidelines…” I’ve written about the call of a Christian being specifically vague before, this oxymoronic phrase somehow is the best descriptor I’ve come across.

Finally, I’m a little surprised none of my economist (or soon to be economist) friends have recognized the reference in the title to the Harrod-Domar growth model. The analogy is a bit nerdy, so I’m really not overly surprised. I really expected at least one shout out.