Fighting poverty with evidence – an interview with Dr Naomi Rutenberg

GEISAPO will be attending the Global Evidence and Implementation Summit (GEIS) 2018 this October – in the lead up, we offer a taste of some of the speakers. 

In this interview, Dr Naomi Rutenberg, Principal Associate, The Forest Hills Group, shares her thoughts on the changing role of evidence in the international development sector. Dr Naomi Rutenberg will deliver a much-anticipated presentation at the Global Evidence and Implementation Summit (GEIS) 2018 in Melbourne, 22-24 October.

Over your career, how have you seen the role of evidence change within the international development sector?

‘First, the attention to evidence for monitoring progress and identifying effective approaches and programs has increased exponentially – and all easily accessed through the internet. There are numerous trackers, such as Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) and HIV data trackers, of development program outputs and outcomes, hundreds of program evaluations produced by groups like 3ie and Innovations for Poverty Action, and massive open data banks at the World Bank and elsewhere.

‘In addition to a huge increase in the amount of evidence, evidence is also being used in different ways – well beyond program evaluation or tracking progress. One example is for micro-targeting program resources, where there is great need for program investments. An illustration of this is using data on recent HIV infections to identify “hotspots” of HIV transmission to prioritise for interventions. Another is combining research methods, such as impact evaluation and implementation research, to understand not only if a program works but for whom and why.’

How is evidence helping to address international development challenges and needs?

‘International development is comprised of intertwined needs and solutions: poverty reduction, addressing climate change, improving access to quality education, recognising the importance of early childhood development, supporting good health and preparing for global health security, and pretty much the rest of the Sustainable Development Goals.

‘Evidence is helping advance each of these areas by bringing to light new solutions, directing investments, and measuring progress. A major hindrance is that much of the evidence is siloed.  We don’t look at the evidence—or the people’s lives—holistically.’

How does your work use evidence to improve international development results?

‘A few years ago, I led a Population Council program that used action research to design and measure the results of the Men’s Health Network (Nigeria), the first nationwide network of health providers in Nigeria focused on the sexual health needs of high risk men. We used a “snowball” approach—working with a select few influential individuals to encourage their peers to seek out the free services provided by the network, measuring and adapting as we went.

‘The Men’s Health Network (Nigeria) grew and in its first five years provided approximately 100,000 high risk men and their sex partners with comprehensive, tailored, stigma-free health services. Nearly 80 per cent of those men received HIV testing and counselling, the gateway to care for those who were infected and enhanced prevention for those who were not. Nearly half a million condoms were distributed.

‘The evidence on service utilisation and the attitudes of providers and clients towards services demonstrated that we can reach key populations with necessary HIV services, even in difficult environments.’

What are you looking forward to most at GEIS 2018?

‘I’m looking forward to building linkages across development sectors and promoting the use of implementation and other types of action research for improving programs and lives.’

For more resources on this topic, enter the search term international development on

Register or find out more about the Global Evidence and Implementation Summit (GEIS) 2018, being held in Melbourne from 22-24 October. APO is hosting the APO Forum 2018 the day after GEIS – on 25 October in Melbourne – with this year’s theme focusing on: Redesigning the Public Knowledge System: New Tools and Strategies for Research, Policy and Practice. Both events will provide both researchers and practitioners with a wealth of expert speakers.