Q&A: Dr. Alice Wuermli

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The LEGO Foundation recently awarded a $100 million grant to Sesame Workshop, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), BRAC, and Global TIES for Children to provide play-based early childhood development services to children affected by the global refugee crisis. The new award builds on existing partnership and on a previous $100 million grant from the John D. and Catherine MacArthur Foundation. Global TIES for Children acts as the independent evaluation partner, with Dr. Hirokazu Yoshikawa and Dr. Alice Wuermli leading the project’s evidence-based research and evaluation activities. On the Ground spoke to Dr. Wuermli about unbiased evaluation and integrating lab-based and field-based research.

Global TIES for Children is the independent evaluation partner for this ambitious play-based project. How do you define that role?

There is evidence showing that in many instances you’re not a very good evaluator of your own performance. In some cases, you overestimate the value that you provide and in other cases you might be too strict in what you’re saying about yourself or your organization. NGOs pull in external evaluators that are independent from the product they provide. As external evaluators, we don’t have a stake in the NGOs performance. If we find that a NGO’s program is not having an impact, then that is as important to us as finding that the program has an impact. We also can take a step back and say: these are the things that are good, these are the things that are not so good, or these are the things that can be improved or should be improved, and this is how you might improve them. We’re not wedded to the status quo, and we don’t need to balance internal politics, funding flows, and personal beliefs.

Last year, you wrote that refugee families and children “are demonstrating strength and dignity, patience, and creativity… The least “we”, the providers of relief and aid can do is meet them with just as much patience and creativity, and a whole load of humility.”

I’ve worked in International Development for about 10 years now. A lot of the work is usually Westerners, White people, like myself, going into the contexts saying “this is how you do it.” We often underestimate the people who live in these situations. I think it’s hard for people working with refugees to not feel terribly sorry for them and want to make their lives better and forget at the same time that these people are demonstrating remarkable qualities. Over the past year, I’ve really been able to observe how the IRC and Sesame Workshop work and how they are really trying to meet people where they’re at and treat them with respect and dignity.

What else have you learned from partnering with the IRC and the Sesame Workshop?

I’ve been doing applied work and working with NGOs and government ministries for quite some time. That’s my norm and I never quite appreciated the appeal of lab-based research. But I also hadn’t tried to introduce certain developmental methods into the applied work, things like caregiver-child interaction observations, or measures of stress physiology, things that are very common in the developmental sciences, but not necessarily obvious as to their “usefulness” in applied research. It was not too long ago where I was suddenly thinking “maybe I should go into lab-based experiments where you can control variables and where you can put all the observers behind a one-way window.” I think I’ve grown a whole new appreciation for that type of work, and the challenges of trying to integrate such methods into applied work.

Visit the Global TIES for Children website to learn more about their important work.