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FSI Implementation Lab puts focus on international policy in practice


Specially trained police patrol a favela in Rio. Political scientist Beatriz Magaloni is working with Brazilian officials on curbing violence in Rio's slums. Her work is being supported by FSI's International Policy Implementation Lab.
Photo credit: 
Elena Cryst

The favelas of Rio de Janeiro are some of the most dangerous places in the world. Havens for drug lords and their booming narcotics businesses, the urban slums that are home to 20 percent of the city’s population are notorious for soaring murder rates and a dearth of public services. Police often have little or no presence in most of Rio’s 800 favelas. And when they do, their conflicts with criminals frequently result in the killing of bystanders.

Brazilian officials have tried to bring order to the favelas with a set of policies and initiatives launched in 2008. A so-called pacification program has trained special teams of police to take a more targeted approach to fighting crime. The program has increased stability and reduced violence in about 30 favelas.

But Stanford researchers have found a hitch: When criminals are put out of business in one favela, they relocate to another. And that can lead to an increase in violence in the non-pacified slums.

“The cost of violence is disproportionately felt by the poor,” said Beatriz Magaloni, an associate professor of political science and senior fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. “Where there is violence, there is no investment. We are working with the government and the police and the community on ways to make these places safer and reduce that poverty by improving the quality of the police and devising ways to reduce the level of lethality they tend to use.”

To support the research she’s doing and the relationships she’s building in Brazil, Magaloni is working with FSI’s International Policy Implementation Lab, a new initiative that will bolster impact-oriented international research, problem-based teaching and long-term engagement with urgent policy implementation problems around the world.

Collaborating with a team of Stanford students, Magaloni is working with community groups, police organizations, government officials and other scholars to study existing policies and training procedures that could broaden the pacification program and make it more effective. The relationships have paid off with access to high-level government data, exclusive research findings and a pipeline between academics and policymakers that can improve living conditions for some of Rio’s poorest and most vulnerable people.

Her project is an example of the work being supported by the International Policy Implementation Lab, which recently awarded Magaloni’s project and those led by five other researchers a total of $210,000.

The lab, which is being supported in part by an initial $2 million gift from two anonymous donors, will grant another round of funding later this fiscal year to support projects led by Stanford faculty.

Recognizing that many Stanford scholars are engaged in international policy analysis, the Implementation Lab will help researchers who want to better understand policy implementation – a process often stymied by bureaucracy, politicking and budget constraints, but also often reflecting deliberation and experimentation by people across different countries, organizations, and cultures.

“The Implementation Lab will help us better understand health, security, poverty and governance challenges in an evolving world,” said FSI Director Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar.  “It will serve as a resource to foster communication across projects, so we can learn more about how implementation plays out in different settings and regions. Through the Implementation Lab, we can better engage faculty and students in understanding how policymakers and organizations change longstanding practices and actually execute policy.”

The Implementation Lab will support long-term projects grounded in policy-oriented research on a specific international topic. The projects must strive to connect scholarly research to interdisciplinary teaching, and will often involve long-term engagement with particular problems or international settings to better understand and inform the implementation of policy.

The first round of funding from the Implementation Lab will help shore up projects aimed at bolstering rural education in China, improving health care in India, curbing violence in Mexico and Brazil, and training government officials and business leaders in developing countries to improve economic growth and development.

And it will support a project led by political scientist Scott Sagan that uses online polling to better gauge the public’s tolerance for the use of nuclear weapons under certain scenarios – work that will lead to the collection of data that can inform how government officials craft military and diplomatic strategy.

“I can imagine two big benefits of the Implementation Lab,” said Sagan, a senior fellow at FSI and the institute’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

“It will help pay for specific tasks that are sometimes not adequately funded elsewhere, especially in terms of student involvement,” he said. “And it will create a greater focus on policy implementation work that allows us to present our research results and see whether those results will have an impact on change.”

To encourage and support these ventures, the Implementation Lab will provide targeted funding, space for research projects and teaching, and a variety of support functions, including connections to on-campus resources that can assist with data visualization, locating interested students, and other tasks.  Those activities will be phased in during the next year based on the advice and feedback of faculty and others who are early participants.

The Implementation Lab is poised to be different from – but complementary to – other Stanford initiatives like the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. FSI’s Implementation Lab is specifically focused on supporting long-term relationships and engaging students and faculty in the study of policy implementation in different national, organizational, and cultural settings.

FSI Senior Fellow Grant Miller is working on improving health care in India.

“The Stanford International Policy Lab is creating an exciting new community that will catapult our ability to have meaningful and sustained policy engagement and impact through common learning and sharing of experiences with like-minded scholars from all corners of campus,” said Grant Miller, an associate professor of medicine and FSI senior fellow whose project on improving health care in India is being supported by the Implementation Lab.

Ann Arvin, Stanford’s vice provost and dean of research, said the International Policy Implementation Lab will help and encourage faculty to make their scholarship more relevant to pressing problems.

Demands for specialized resources, narrowly focused engagement of students, the ability to consider a long-term horizon, and an understanding of the often opaque processes of policy formulation and implementation pose considerable challenges for researchers seeking to enhance the potential of their policy-oriented research to achieve real impact.

“The International Policy Implementation Lab will help our faculty and students address these obstacles,” Arvin said. “We anticipate that this novel program will bring together Stanford scholars who seek solutions to different policy-related problems at various places around the world, but whose work is linked by the underlying similarities of these challenges. The Implementation Lab will give them the opportunity to learn from each other and share ideas and experiences about what succeeds and what is likely to fail when it comes to putting policy into practice.”

That’s what attracts Stephen Luby to the lab.

“The mistake that researchers often make is that they work in isolation,” said Luby, whose work on reducing pollution caused by the brick making industry in Bangladesh is being supported by the Implementation Lab. “Then they think they’re ready to engage in the implementation process, and realize they haven’t engaged with all the stakeholders. Policy implementation is an iterative process. You need feedback from all the right people along the way.”

Luby, a professor of medicine and senior fellow at FSI and the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, is working with brick makers and suppliers, as well as anthropologists and government regulators, to identify better ways to curb the pollution created by the coal-burning kilns throughout Bangladesh.

“Pneumonia is the leading cause of death among kids in Bangladesh,” Luby said. “And the brick kiln pollution is largely responsible for that. They’re using a 150-year-old technology to bake bricks, and there are better, cleaner ways to do it.”

But swapping coal-burning kilns for ones that are fired with cleaner natural gas is expensive, and there is little incentive for brick makers to change.

The government has passed regulations aimed at reducing pollution, but corruption, toothless laws and poor enforcement continue to undermine those policies.

"The country is caught in an equilibrium where people are getting cheap bricks but at a high cost to health and the environment,” Luby said. “We need to disrupt that equilibrium, and I look to the Implementation Lab to help us think this through. There’s a community of scholars who want to transform their work into implementation, and the lab will help convene them."