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“The world is awful. The world is much better. The world can be much better. All three statements are true at the same time" according to Max Roser, Program Director of Our World In Data at the University of Oxford. Nothing captures India’s position better as we stand at the 75th anniversary of our Independence.

Our nation was born amid a lot of uncertainties and genuine doubts about its very survival. Milestones like this are important as it provides us an opportunity to look back and take stock of just how far we’ve come to improve the quality of life of our citizens. Transformational government reforms, policies and initiatives by the union and the states have helped bring millions out of poverty. We have made remarkable strides in health, educational, and many other social development measures. And over the last two decades, India has created an enviable digital infrastructure that has led to global innovations in identity, banking, payments, commerce and more recently for vaccinations. Even if one were to use that arguably flawed metric of GDP as a measure of development, India has done very well and is poised to join the $5T club. In almost every measure, India is in a much better position today than ever before.

While the Child Mortality Rate has dropped from ~25% to ~3% in 2022, there is still a newborn dying every minute in India. And that is awful. While literacy rate has jumped more than 5 times since 1947, it is still well below the world average and 50% of our 5th graders cannot read a simple sentence. And that is awful. While India continues to be the tech talent capital of the world, employment rate in India fell to 36.4% in June 2022 - one of its lowest levels in recent memory. And that is awful.

India can be much better.

With our size, diversity, population, demographics, and our economic position India is a country like no other and for us to be much better, we may need to chart a path unlike no other country has in the past. We have a few things going for us: We have years worth of administrative data on what worked and what didn’t, we have one of the most vibrant development sector with both young and established organisations doing impactful work, and we have a fast growing list of philanthropists looking at giving very differently from their predecessors.

This is a unique opportunity for donors, government, and NGOs to come together in ways that have not been done at scale anywhere in the world. Consider this: The entire private philanthropic capital, at somewhere between 50,000 - 65,000 crores annually, is less than 3% of the total government spend on the social sector. That means that even a marginal improvement in the quality of policy creation and implementation can have a huge impact on development outcomes. It’s imperative for philanthropy to focus on strengthening governance and building state capacity through effective partnerships, and incorporating data and evidence into policymaking. The multiplier effect of such funding is not possible through direct interventions alone. For example, Veddis Foundation partnered with the Haryana State Rural Livelihoods Mission (HSRLM) on the governance and sustainability of cluster level federations (CLFs) across the state. This work resulted in 220% increase in the corpus funds of these CLFs and a 74% increase in income during the last rabi season.

Governments, nonprofits, and donors are increasingly beginning to recognize the power and value of robust data and evidence to develop policies, especially those meant to fight poverty. Poverty is too daunting and complex a problem. That said, it can be tackled by breaking down the big questions on poverty reduction into several smaller, but more precise questions at individual or group levels, testing potential solutions with impact evaluation methods such as randomised evaluations and scaling up the most promising ones.

Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL), a pedagogical technique developed by the NGO Pratham for left-behind children, perhaps provides the clearest illustration of this. Under TaRL, children are given targeted instruction by grouping them based on their learning level rather than their age or grade. A series of randomised evaluations by researchers affiliated to The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) South Asia across seven Indian states found this model significantly improved educational outcomes. Today, TaRL has reached 21 Indian states and union territories as well as 10 countries in Africa.

Veddis Foundation and J-PAL South Asia launched the Alliance for Scaling Policy Impact through Research and Evidence (ASPIRE) earlier this year to accelerate the adoption of policies rooted in scientific evidence and data in India. One of the first projects to be undertaken by ASPIRE in partnership with the NGO Breakthrough is to integrate a gender equity curriculum into the syllabus for students across 23,000 government schools in Odisha. An evaluation by J-PAL’s chair of gender sector, Seema Jayachandran of Northwestern University, found the program to be effective in promoting gender equal attitudes among adolescents in Haryana.

Focusing on evidence and data makes it possible to measure the impact of social programmes and policies. It helps governments, donors and civil society organisations to back policies that can bring meaningful, lasting and irreversible changes to the lives of the people living in poverty. There should no longer be questions about “why" scientific evidence and data need to be the bedrock of policymaking in India. We should work towards accelerating the “how". Philanthropy can be the catalyst. And doing so will ensure that India will be much better and it need not take another 75 years.

Evidence-informed policymaking was a key concept explored in the 'Governance & State Capacity' track hosted by Veddis and J-PAL at The/Nudge Institute's 'Charcha 2022', a platform that brings key stakeholders across governments, markets and civil society together, to solve critical developmental issues for the nation.

Murugan Vasudevan is CEO, Veddis Foundation. This topic was discussed at ‘Charcha 2022’, organised by The/Nudge Institute, a convening of policy, business and civil society leaders. Mint was the event’s media partner.

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