Leveraging Research for China
Ly, Phuong, Stanford Social Innovation Review
The Rural Education Action Project uses its studies about China's poorest places to influence government policy BY PHUONG LY
AS CHINA'S ECONOMY BOOMED, classrooms in rural provinces emptied. One in four teenagers were dropping out of junior high to work in factories to help their impoverished families. Giving cash to students as an incentive to stay in school, as many nonprofits have done in other countries, seemed like an obvious solution.
But for Scott Rozelle, a good idea isn't good enough-it has to be backed by empirical evidence. So Rozelle, founder and co-director of the Rural EducationAction Project (REAP) at Stanford University, designed an experiment: 300 of the poorest seventh-graders in an area of Shaanxi province in northern China were identified. Half of them were chosen at random to receive $75 if they stayed in school for another semester during the 2009-10 school year. Half were not; they served as the control group.
The results were better than Rozelle imagined. The dropout rate for the students who received money was 60 percent less than for those who didn't.
The Chinese government was impressed, too. Thanks to long-established connections in the country, a policy brief written by REAP and its partners made its way to China's State Council, the equivalent in the United States to the Cabinet. Soon afterward, China's top education official directed $10 million to be spent on cash incentives for students.
For Rozelle, taking the time to do such experiments is the difference between helping 150 kids and affecting millions. "Our entire raison d'être is to change policy to help the poor," says Rozelle, an agricultural economist "When we're implementing projects we're always thinking, how would the government do it?"
Poverty in China is such an immense challenge, Rozelle says, that the government has to be involved to make substantial change. The canyon between rich and poor, urban and rural is wider in China than anywhere else.
China has the second-largest economy and the second-largest number of billionaires (after the United States)-and the second-largest number of people in poverty (after India). In China's cities, 70 percent of children go to college. In the countryside, most children suffer from severe malnutrition, intestinal worms, and anemia, and fewer than 5 percent will continue their education past high school.
Against this inequity, REAP leverages research. Since its founding in 2007, REAP has conducted about 30 sets of experiments that have produced policy briefs read by top government officials. From there, the government has issued directives and money to improve nutrition among children and make education more affordable.
In 2008, China bestowed on Rozelle the Friendship Award, the highest honor available to a non-Chinese, for significantly contributing to the country's economic and social advancement. REAP's $2 million annual budget is funded by a wide range of donors, from foundations such as the Ford Foundation to corporations such as Nokia to individuals who had no previous interest in China.
Even as REAP enjoys such support, the work of putting the policy into practice remains a challenge-as it does for any social endeavor. Managing relationships and changing human behavior is much harder than crunching data.
In one province, REAP showed that most children were anemic and that teaching parents about nutrition wasn't making a difference. A few more research trials later, local officials finally conceded that vitamins are the best solution. But they still hesitated to distribute vitamins that a company donated; they worried about liability.
Rozelle shakes his head over the bureaucratic absurdity, but he smiles with optimism. Convincing the officials to consider vitamins was a major step forward, and the rest will follow, eventually. "Policy change," he says, "is a long haul."
RIGOR PLUS COLLABORATION
Although REAP is only five years old, its roots reach back more than two decades. …