A Summer of Evaluation

Right now, I am sitting in a community in the Northern region in Ghana, an extremely rural one I might add. You can tell that it is rural when the electricity poles stop springing up as you drive further along the dirt road by motorbike. There are more cows on the road than people, and the further along the road you go, the less road there is. The nearest town is 40 kilometers away and the last time I went through it, most of the area was out of water, electricity but not short on hospitality and shouts of “salaminga” or white person.

In Wale Wale, where my guesthouse is located, I have made friends with a lady who cooks rice and at night, we climb on top of her stand, have some “chop” (food) and enjoy good conversation under a brilliant starry sky. I’ve noticed that no matter where you go in the world, women can always relate when you talk about work, food and of course, men.


I am in Ghana working with Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) to implement and monitor the Graduation from Ultra Poor (GUP) project. By the time my internship ends, the GUP team and myself will have surveyed over 4,000 respondents in 241 communities. The GUP project is a randomized control trial (RCT) which aims to lift people from an ultra-poverty status (those below the $1 a day threshold) within 24 months through asset transfers, savings and labor supply. My work consists of a combination of data cleaning and analysis while traveling to rural communities to monitor and implement surveys.

Asset transfers primarily consist of transferring some type of asset like maize production tools or livestock, etc. It seems to me people here always prefer 10 chickens to 4 pigs. However 4 goats always trump all options. The savings intervention of the project evaluates different incentives to save to test what works best. Some families receive 50% matching saving schemes, whereas others get mobile credit or other saving incentives. The labor supply or ‘Bags’ experiments are geared towards understanding the labor elasticity of the Ultra Poor. Here, GUP provides a series of easy and hard to make bags to women, and buys the bags from the women at different prices. We monitor production levels and type of bags made in response to different prices and socioeconomic factors like nutrition and current income.



But counting cows and leading surveys is not all I have done this summer. Traveling to communities leaves a lot of downtime in the afternoon. When I arrived, I began my trip by traveling to my NGO, Exponential Education. Exponential Education is currently run by an operational director and based in Kumasi, and is expanding quickly. After years of writing letters and holding online fund raisers, I decided that I needed to have a sustainable source of funding for our program. Over the past month, I evaluated numerous alternative models and realized that launching a for-profit business venture would be the best way to go.

Using my down-time wisely, my colleague Bilal Bawany and I are planning to launch an SAT tutoring and higher education advising service that will feed profits into the non-profit organization. The business will launch in mid-September, and will hopefully expand with corresponding Exponential Education programs. With the expansion of Exponential Education, we also decided to implement proper monitoring and evaluation techniques to the non-profit. Using all the skills I have learnt from IPA, I am now designing surveys using Blaise, building our monitoring and data reporting system via Stata and will implement surveys and randomize classes by mid-September. More to come soon!


“So, How Do You Like DC?”

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked that question this summer, I’d be one rich intern.  Coworkers, friends, parents, and everyone in between have all asked.  Many have gone further to ask the more daunting question, “Are you going move to DC after graduation?”

Well the short answer to that question is, I really don’t know.  Yes, I have enjoyed my time living and working in DC, but just like any city, there are upsides and downsides to living here. So as a mental exercise for myself and as entertainment for you, I’m going to go through the pro and cons, in my opinion, of living in our nation’s capital.


1. Public Transit: The Metro system in DC is one of the best in the country. During rush hour, trains are running every 2 to 3 minutes, whisking you off to work while you sip coffee and read The Washington Post. There’s no sitting on I-10 waiting for an accident to be cleared up or fighting for a parking space at the office.

2. Policy Wonks: It’s sort of like being at the LBJ School, but scaled-up to city size. Everywhere you turn, you can find someone who wants to discuss politics, policy, or government. It is exciting to know there are so many people as passionate and interested in the same issues that you are. It also makes networking opportunities limitless.

3. Extracurriculars: DC has some fantastic restaurants, bars, professional sports teams, music venues, museums, and theaters and most of them are targeted towards the 20 to 30-something crowd.

So if you’re trying to get home after a late night out or going to meet a friend on a Saturday afternoon, sometimes you can’t help but wish you could hop in your car and drive yourself.

1. Public Transit:  Although the DC Metro will definitely get you to work and back on time (most days), the late evenings and weekends are rife with track work that severely limit and delay the frequency of tra

2. Policy Wonks: Sometimes you just don’t feel like talking about your or someone else’s work. DC never turns off the policy switch and everywhere you go;, from the gym, to happy hour, to a National’s game, people are talking about what they do and how important it is.

3. Tourists: Tourists arrive on massive tour buses and travel in packs wearing the same neon color shirt.  On weekends and holidays, they crowd the Metro, the sidewalk, and the museums. This seriously detracts from Pros #1 and #3 listed above.


Sure I’ve oversimplified a bit here, but you get the idea. Also, although this has been fun, it certainly hasn’t helped me gain any clarity on where I want to live after grad school.  I guess it’s a good thing I still have a year to figure it out.

The End is Near

Overall I have really enjoyed my experience this summer at the KDK-Harman Foundation. Here’s a feel good story to illustrate some of the unexpected good the summer camps do. There was a mother who had contacted one of the summer grantees and asked if her child could come to the camp. The mother explained that her daughter loves science, but her daughter is diagnosed with selective mood disorder. Therefore her daughter doesn’t talk in public. The severe anxiety her daughter experiences in social situations is expressed through her silence. The mother said don’t worry about her and don’t try to make her talk, she is perfectly fine and she’ll do everything asked of her….she just won’t talk. The camp let the little girl into the camp and during the second week the little girl was there the campers went on a field trip. The campers were divided into teams and had to solve a puzzle in the least amount of time. As the seconds ticked down the little girl got so excited and into the competition she shouted, “HURRY!”. Then she immediately looked shocked and didn’t say anything after that. This is a real testament to the camp culture that this little girl who won’t say anything became so relaxed she surprised herself and opened up a little bit.

There are many other stories that I have been told and witnessed that are similar to the one above. Students are finding out that it is possible to be a doctor or an engineer, they’re even figuring out that maybe engineering isn’t for them as a lifelong career, but hey, it was a unexpected good time. They’re also finding out that the struggles and frustration that comes with video game programming robotics, and most importantly, that overcoming the frustration they feel only makes the successes even sweeter.

With only a week and a half left at the KDK-Harman Foundation things have been fast and furious. My main focus has been organizing the shared summer learning workshop, dubbed Meet*Share*Learn (to the Power of STEM) or MSL(STEM) for short. I have been planning this workshop since May, so there actually isn’t much left to do. I have witnessed, firsthand, the efficiency and effectiveness of planning ahead…Hopefully,  I can transfer these new found anti-procrastination skills to my upcoming course in the fall semester. We’ll see….

As I have mentioned before the MSL(STEM) workshop is an opportunity for the non-profit organizations to come together and share their achievements and challenges this summer. Many of them are running into similar challenges such as getting students transported to the program and then keeping them engaged with interesting material so that they want to return for every day of camp. I am extremely excited about this workshop because this is the foundation’s opportunity to share our observations and results from our site visit evaluations. I developed the evaluation form and implemented the use of the form at all 11 programs this summer. I just completed my own solo drop-in visits on all 11 grantees. A product of these evaluations is a large matrix encompassing important indicators of successful summer programs. This is it, the findings from the analysis of this matrix is where the foundation can really help the grantees become stronger for next summer. The results from this evaluation tool pilot has been a long and laborious process with many revisions needed for next summer’s implementation. I feel good about this pilot though, and it’s been interesting experience to implement my first evaluation tool.

The icing on the cake for this workshop is the foundation’s recruitment of engineers, medical technologists, doctors, and chemists for the event. We wanted to bring together non-profit organizations and STEM professionals for several reasons.

1) Non-profits can understand the needs of the STEM workforce pipeline.

2) Provide an introduction for possible STEM industry internships for young people.

3) Provide an introduction to corporate funding for NPOs.

I am especially looking forward to this aspect of the workshop because these company representatives are really passionate about STEM education and this could broaden the horizons of the afterschool and summer programming for economically disadvantaged children. In my next (AKA last) post I’ll detail the fun and excitement of the workshop and the final outcomes from my internship.


New Federal SNAP-Ed Model: Easier Said Than Done

In my first blog post, I mentioned that I am working on the USDA SNAP nutrition education program known as SNAP-Ed. I also mentioned that recent federal legislation significantly expanded the scope of the SNAP-Ed program mission and activities. I’m going to tell you a little more about those changes and the challenges associated with making sure they happen on the ground.

Traditionally, states have used their federal SNAP-Ed funds to provide low-income children and families with lessons on how to shop for, prepare, and eat healthier meals.  The new federal regulations expand the list of “allowable uses” of SNAP-Ed funds to include policy and environmental level changes that create healthier schools, workplaces, and communities for low-income Americans. States can still use the funding for nutrition education lessons, but are encouraged to take a more holistic approach and affect change at all levels of the Social Ecological Model. So what does that really mean?



Well, it could mean a range of different things and really opens the doors for innovation by state agencies and their community-based partners.  It might mean working with public or private groups to establish a new farmers market or mobile fruit and vegetable stand in a neighborhood without a grocery store. It could mean consulting with convenience and corner store owners to increase the number of healthy options that they stock. It may mean collaborating with other organizations to establish a farm-to-school program that increases the amount of fresh, local produce served to children in public schools.  To determine the best use of funds, states agencies must assess the health needs or gaps that exist in an individual state or community.

That all sounds great, right? Well it is, except that it’s easier said than done. Many state governments and agencies have experienced cuts in their budgets and reduction in staff. This may hinder their ability to recruit and collaborate with new community-based organizations in their state. It may limit the amount of assessment a state agency can do to determine what the needs of their low-income populations truly are.  States agency staff may not be aware of the various non-profits and local entities that have the resources to implement policy and environmental level interventions.

Our job at the federal level is to provide adequate guidance and resources to improve the ability of states to successfully implement the new regulations. The federal SNAP-Ed team here at FNS has published tool kits, provided professional development tools, and released policy memos and guidance which clarify and exemplify possible new uses of the SNAP-Ed funding. This information is passed down through a network of regional and state-level administrators, who then pass information down to community-based organizations which receive grant money to implement programs.  As you can see, this is a long chain of communication and it’s likely that it will take some time for the true intent of the regulatory changes to be realized in every community where SNAP-Ed operates.

In my view, this is an illustration of the challenge of working within a federalist structure of government. Federal changes must be communicated to states that then must interpret those changes and implement in the way that makes sense for their population. Although this requires a great deal of time, effort, and error along the way, it makes sense. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for changing the health behaviors of Americans. The nutrition interventions needed in rural Arkansas are vastly different than those needed in downtown Los Angeles. It’s up to each state and locality to determine what’s best for them…within federal guidelines of course.

Payday and Auto Title Loans: The Cycle of Debt, City Ordinances, & Loopholes

Since my last entry, things have kind of slowed down a bit in the School-to-Prison Pipeline area of work at Texas Appleseed so I’ve been helping out on the Payday and Auto Title Loan project. Texas Appleseed is a member of the Texas Fair Lending Alliance along with 70 other organizations that are all working to develop and implement meaningful reform that will end the cycle of debt caused by these types of loans.

Before working on this project, I always drove by these types of businesses, but never knew how they operate. I even lived right across the street from one when I first moved the Austin and was still oblivious to their practices. Payday and Auto Title Loan places are popping up all over Texas and there are about 200 storefronts in the Austin area alone, and around 3,300 in the state.

Payday Loan: a small cash advance with a two-week loan term that carries interest and fees

Auto Title Loan: loan with a typical one-month term that uses car title as collateral and carries interest and fees. If the borrower defaults, the loan company can take the car

These loans are pretty easy to get and they’re quick so they seem appealing, but the majority of these loans carry huge usurious rates, approximately 500%-1,000% APR and also come with excessive fees. It creates a cycle of debt because borrowers are often only able to pay off the high fees month after month, making the minimum payment without ever paying down the principle. Sometimes borrowers even have to take out another loan to pay off the first loan.

The City of Austin implemented a city ordinance in an attempt to end the cycle of debt by requiring the following:

  1. Limit loan size – Payday loans limited  limited to 20% of borrower’s gross monthly income and Auto Title loans limited  to less than 3% of the borrower’s gross annual income or 70% of the vehicles value
  2. Limit the number of installments to 4 and rollovers to 3
  3. Proceeds from each installment or renewal must reduce loan principal by 25%
  4. Register with the city

The past few weeks, I’ve been visiting Payday and Auto Title Loan places throughout Austin to see if they are following the ordinance. I’ve been to about 25 stores myself, and it’s been really eye opening. I have been surprised with the number of customers that visit these stores. At one place, I even had to wait 40 minutes to speak to a worker because they were so crowded at the time!

A lot of the places that I’ve visited have found a way to get around the ordinance by sending borrowers to their other storefronts outside the city limits to make their payments, and they have been very open about it. One woman even told us: “They found a loophole.” Others have openly acknowledged the fact that they are required to follow the ordinance now and explain how it has changed their loan practices (i.e. “we can’t loan you as much as we used to be able to” and/or “you don’t have as long to pay the loan back”).

There have also been several places that openly encourage you to take out the max amount that you’re able to, even if you don’t need to borrow that much money. Some also explain that you can keep the loan out as long as you want, provided you make the minimum payment, which is just the interest and fees. I can definitely see how people are easily trapped in this cycle of debt after visiting a number of businesses.

Other places though, are following the ordinance , and we even stumbled upon a few that are very upfront and encourage people to pay the loans off as soon as they can, urge them to take only the amount they need, and explain honestly that the loan can become extremely hard to pay back over time. So there have been some bright spots in my visits.

I think that it’s an issue that everyone needs to be aware of. As a student, I could easily see myself unknowingly getting involved and taking out one of these loans and being hit with the reality of it later down the road. Overall, this is not something I expected to work on this summer, but it’s been extremely revealing. It is an issue that I will continue to follow and remain interested in after I leave Texas Appleseed this summer and I’m grateful that I’ve been exposed to it.

Gender and Agriculture with IPA-Z*

It’s been a little over five weeks since I moved to Lusaka to start my internship with Innovations for Poverty Action’s Zambia Office (IPA-Z), and those five weeks have been fantastic. I’ve seen hippos and crocs, crossed one of the world’s seven wonders off my list, and become conditioned to respond to ‘mzungu’ as if it were my god-given name. All that has been awesome, but the focus of this post is going to be my work at IPA.

First, a (very) short introduction to IPA. IPA is a non-profit research organization that evaluates the effectiveness of different development interventions, using randomized control trials as their primary tool. They then work with partner and government organizations to scale up interventions that have proven successful.

The IPA-Z Office

The IPA-Z Office

This is the Zambia office. It’s in a house about 20 minutes (busride/walk combo) from my apartment, and has a staff of about 10 full-timers. The entire office has been in constant chaos since baseline surveying began in late May for their Girls Negotiation project. In short, the project takes eight-grade girls and involves them in an after-school program that teaches them negotiation skills through the same methods used in the Harvard business school curriculum. The idea is to see if this kind of program significantly improves the girls’ abilities to negotiate for their futures, both in terms of continued education and personal health.

Surveyors Catherine and Martha handing out permissions slips for the Girls Negotiation Project

Surveyors Catherine and Martha handing out permissions slips for the Girls Negotiation Project

The office has a few other ongoing projects, including an Agroforestry project, a community health project, and my (solo) project, titled ambiguously “Gender and Agriculture”.

“Gender and Ag”—as it’s affectionately called—has been through a lot. It’s a project that, having not panned out in its original form, has been gutted and reworked over the course of the last year. It’s now an exploratory project, with the deliverable being a database of data pertaining to agricultural and cultural (especially gender-related) practices throughout Zambia, and a final report. Last week I finished with the data collection, and after it is sufficiently .do-ed, I’ll write a report showing all the fantastically interesting correlations with maps and graphs and other wonderful visuals.

Despite working tirelessly, I’ve had plenty of time to get out of the office. Over a recent four day weekend I had the opportunity to see Victoria Falls, go on safari in Chobe National Park, and discuss development challenges with the Prime Minister Stanley of Mukuni Village. For those interested, the major challenges he mentioned were poor road quality (impacting on both education and healthcare access) and water availability—the village only has four taps, which currently provide water to its 8,000 inhabitants.

*All views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of IPA as an organization.

Top: me at Victoria Falls; Bottom Left: Elephants at Chobe National Park; Bottom Right: Mukuni Village

Top: me at Victoria Falls; Bottom Left: Elephants at Chobe National Park; Bottom Right: Mukuni Village


Without doubt, my internship experience has been a roller coaster ride up until now – exciting, dramatic and rewarding.

Two months in, I finally have the time (and internet) to recount some of the experiences so far. Back in April, when I managed to secure an internship at Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) Ghana, my greatest concern was getting the visa in time. While that proved to be a valid concern (I got my visa one day before the flight), the bigger challenge was to find myself a new project . Initially I was selected for an exciting agricultural project that aimed to employ information, technological and financial interventions to bolster the agricultural profitability of farmers in Northern Ghana. However, two weeks before my flight, I was told that this project was facing implementation delays and was told to look at other projects within IPA Ghana.

After two weeks of interviews, I opted to join the Teachers Community Assistant Initiative (TCAI) project. As this was a very last minute decision (I was literally boarding the plane at JFK as I confirmed my participation) I did not know what I would be doing exactly. Luckily for me, in retrospect, things have turned out to extremely well.

Landing in Accra, I was not only engulfed by humidity, but also had to fight off street hawkers and deny around 20 taxi drivers from driving me to the domestic terminal, which was approximately 30 seconds away. I was also struck by nostalgia as the sea breeze, the loud noises, the traffic, the bustle, the heat, all reminded me of Karachi, and I was quick to retrieve my bargaining skills and bargain down my excess luggage charge. Fifteen minutes after landing in Accra, I found myself boarding a flight to Kumasi, accompanied by another colleague from LBJ. We were going there to check up on Exponential Education, a remedial education organization that she has been running in Ghana for the past two years. As the organization had started expanding and attracting traction, I had volunteered to consult with them – helping develop a proper organizational structure, implement better financial and reporting systems and design an M&E framework.

After landing in Kumasi we went straight to the school where one of their programs was being run. I was awestruck at the similarity between schools in Ghana and Pakistan. Apart from the colorful uniforms and machetes in schoolbags, everything from the teaching methods to the paint on the buildings looked the same – remnants of the British colonial era. Later on , during my fieldwork with TCAI, I would learn that much of the both countries also share many of the same education challenges – low learning levels, rote memorization and teacher absenteeism. In one of those schools, we participated in a graduation ceremony for the children who just completed an Exponential Education program. These kids were presented with certificates, special honors and scholarships and once the ceremony was over, they all rushed to shake our hands and warmly welcomed us into their community. Also, within one day I had a managed to attract few marriage proposals by female teachers in our host school.

Soon after drawing up expansion plans for Exponential Education and conducting meetings with prospective partners, I started my internship with IPA. I quickly brought myself up to speed and learned that the TCAI project was designed to provide evidence on which remedial education interventions are the most effective and cost efficient when it comes to improving learning outcomes and informing national level education reform. Surprisingly, Ghana spends a whopping 23 percent of its budget on education and has high school enrollment rates. However the quality of education is woefully low with less than 50 percent of grade 3 children having minimum competency in reading, writing and basic arithmetic. In order to address this issue, lessons from randomized controlled trials performed in India (for remedial education) and Kenya (for class splits according to ability levels) were pooled to develop the TCAI project. Over the past two years, IPA has run four different interventions across 450 schools and 42 districts, examining their effectiveness over on a nationally representative sample of approximately 40,000 pupils. The project has been a collaboration between IPA, Ghana Education Service (GES), the Jameel Poverty Action Lab (JPAL) and other government agencies and is now at its closing stages.

Joining one day before the endline survey commenced, I was thrust right into the middle of everything . For my first task I was asked to devise a data monitoring and reporting system for TCAI which incidentally happened to be IPA Ghana’s largest project. In the initial weeks, I not only had to quickly update my vocabulary (both in basic Twi and organization-speak) but also learn to navigate through myriad databases and .do files and develop relationships with the very large evaluation team. Once the system was in place, the next task was to conduct one-on-one sessions with the surveyor teams and update them on their performance and data quality. Conducting fieldwork is one thing, but traversing half the country while being thrown around inside a 4×4 while trying to run stata on your laptop  is a whole different experience. We travelled on average over 6 hours a day, visiting remote schools in the lush green bush of the Volta region and the misty mountains of the Ashanti region and monitoring the surveyors, meeting students, teachers, district officials and sharing fufu and jollof rice with the teams. Everywhere we went, I heard chants of “Obruni (white man) how are you? Im fine, thank you” which makes me think that they all memorize this as a song at school. Loud Ghanaian “hip-life” dance music has also been omnipresent, like an extended soundtrack.

My experiences in the field (still ongoing) have without doubt provided me with some much needed context and appreciation for my work here. Since then, I have been working on tracking the projects performance, auditing data quality and am now working with the principal investigators to conduct basic analysis of the learning outcomes. Two months on, I am still surprised and excited by the level of responsibility I am given and am always amazed by how the team tackles the daunting challenges that come with administering a nationwide evaluation. I have already learned a lot – from specific technical skills to techniques on eating Ghanaian soup with my fingers. Apart from the work at IPA, I am partnering with the team at exponential education to launch a for-profit enterprise that will provide SAT tutoring and career counseling to Ghanians at competitive prices, with part of the profits going into making exponential education more sustainable! There are exciting times ahead!