Between the Research and Policy World: Lee Crawfurd’s Experience

We connected with Lee Crawfurd, a Ph.D. student at the University of Sussex about his recent experience as a Tony Blair Institute advisor at the Rwanda Ministry of Education. As his field year comes to a close and he continues on with his doctoral studies, we share his perspective on traveling between the worlds of research and policy.

My interest in global poverty was sparked by my first visit to Kenya when I was 10-years-old and I was confronted by other children asking me for money or for a pen for school. From this experience, I became interested in learning more and choosing to study development during my undergraduate and Master’s degrees. One of my first proper jobs was being sent to South Sudan to work in the Ministry of Finance as a junior economic advisor. From there I began to get more involved in other global projects such as my role with the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI). 

When Tony Blair left office as UK Prime Minister he set up several charities and a consulting businesses which were recently merged into a single Institute. In Africa, the Institute has been supporting the leaders of Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Liberia for 10 years now, and is currently in 14 African countries. We have also embedded advisors in a range of government Ministries. As an advisor in the Ministry of Education, it is really helpful to have contacts in the President’s Office and in the Ministry of Finance, as well as a network of colleagues working in government across the continent.

Lee (far right) with the Tony Blair Institute team and President Paul Kagame (center)

The goal of the Tony Blair Institute is to support government leaders to achieve their stated ambitions, whatever those might be. I was the first TBI advisor at the Rwanda Ministry of Education, so a big part of my job has been figuring out where I think an advisor can have the most impact. A single advisor can’t exactly go and do teacher training, but there is scope for supporting the central government to interact more effectively with schools to ensure that they are better funded and supported, and set clearer objectives in terms of achieving concrete outcomes for all students. My first few weeks were really about finding a space for myself at the Ministry (including literally finding a desk), listening, and volunteering for any and all work that came up. As time progressed, I developed a series of concrete projects to work on alongside Rwandese colleagues, drafting strategy and policy documents and briefing notes for Ministers and senior civil servants. 

Lee (center) with Ministry and Rwanda Government Officials

Working with the Government of Rwanda has been a real pleasure. The basic level of capacity and motivation is much higher than some other governments I’ve worked with. I’ve received emails and WhatsApp messages from civil servants from 8am to 8pm. In South Sudan I had to deliver basic Excel training, take minutes, and hand deliver memos to people who didn’t use email. It’s nice in Rwanda having the space to focus on strategic policy advice, knowing that much of that basic functional machinery of government is in place. I hope my replacement will be able to continue to iterate on the plans I’ve developed and support continued improvement at the Ministry. 

As a next step, I will be returning to the London office of the Center for Global Development as a Senior Research Associate with their global education team. I’ll be helping to develop and implement a new research agenda focused on education policy in developing countries, working directly with governments and doing some original fieldwork to study interesting reforms. So there’ll be a lot of continuity in subject matter. 

My work as a government advisor has not been strongly related on a day to day level with my doctoral studies. What a Ph.D. does give you, however, is a certain amount of credibility as an expert, as well as a familiarity with the global evidence base on a range of issues. My dissertation is in the economics style of 3 scholarly papers rather than one massive book. One paper evaluates a voucher lottery in Delhi that gave students five years of free tuition at a low-cost private school which found, surprisingly, null and negative results. The second studies the role of school management practices in shaping test scores, and how public subsidies for private schools perform in Uganda. The third evaluates a large contracting out of public schools to private management in Pakistan, in which over 4,000 schools were transferred in a single school year. 

As a reflection from my experience, I think that spending time working in government is really helpful for anyone hoping to do research on or try to influence policy. It’s really useful to have some understanding of the day to day of a Ministry and the sometimes messy process through which policy is developed. I’m thrilled to be rejoining one of the best development think tanks in the world, home to a long list of thinkers who have really fundamentally shaped a lot of what I believe about development, and that has really out-sized policy influence. 

We thank Lee for sharing his insights and wish him the best of luck in his future endeavors! We look forward to continuing to share with the broader global community these real stories from non-profit leaders, school directors, faculty and graduate students–please let us know if there is someone you want to hear from. 

Paula and Maxie

Meet Lee Crawfurd:

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