How do you compare Latin American and African development experiences?

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Grade and Tegemeo researchers discussing their comparative framework. Photo credits: Andrea Baertl

How can Latin American and African development experiences be compared in a meaningful way, for the regions to be able to learn from each other effectively?  Answering this question was the task that the ELLA partners set ourselves at the Comparative Evidence workshops in Bogota, Colombia and Accra, Ghana last December.

During 2015 the paired ELLA Latin American and African research centres investigated their own regions’ experiences – of informality, collective land rights, oil and gas value added, crime, domestic violence, and accountability systems.  But at the workshops, the centres had the hard, but richly enjoyable, task of comparing these experiences: what was similar in Latin America and Africa, what was different, and why?

From the first phase of ELLA, we learnt the importance of having rigorous evidence from both continents to enable effective inter-regional  lesson learning.  So ELLA2 was designed to gather each region’s evidence on a common research question (see the ELLA Design and Methods Papers), to produce Regional Evidence Papers (REPs, currently in edit), before moving on to the inter-regional comparison, and the production of Comparative Evidence Papers (CEPs).


Prior to the workshops the research centres had circulated advanced drafts of their REPs and prepared short Comparative Notes as a first shot at comparison. But it was the workshop sessions based on ‘Mill’s methods of similarity and difference’ that created the framework for an effective face-to-face coordination between the Latin American and African researchers.

Were the outcomes (dependent variable) to the common research question similar, but the explanatory factors (independent variables) different – the method of similarity? Or were the outcomes different but the explanatory factors similar – the method of difference?  Or were both the outcomes and explanatory factors different – in which case, use causal process tracing? In  each case, the researchers were isolating the key variables that led to certain outcomes.  Hopefully these were variables that could be influenced by changes in policy, or in practices.


The results were fascinating. Three days of face time gave the teams the time to deepen their understanding of each other´s regional paper, to draw the comparisons, to identify the common story, and  to isolate the key variables that were driving outcomes.  The six teams found themselves in three of the four  ‘boxes’ – the exception was ‘similar-similar’.

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The teams developed strong frameworks.  To summarise some examples:

  • Colombia and South Africa have many common economic characteristics, including their inequality, but their labour markets diverge: Colombia has a much larger informal sector, and South Africa much higher unemployment. Comparison of the countries reveals the heterogeneity of informality and the different mix of policy changes needed in the two countries to drive more inclusive growth
  • Pastoralists productive systems are under threat in both the Andean altiplano and the East African savannah. Comparison reveals the variation in the factors at play in the two regions, but also allows the isolation of the specific policies on collective land access rights as the key factor determining outcomes, and the options for ecologically sustainable livelihoods for vulnerable pastoralist communities
  • Domestic violence legislation has been passed in many Latin American and African countries in the last decade. But an inter-regional comparison, with a detailed study of Ghana and Mexico, reveals  how actions have gone much further in Latin America in the provision of protective services for survivors, for societal, institutional and financial reasons

Each research pair left the workshop with an outline of the comparison, and is now preparing a Comparative Evidence Paper (CEP), drawing together the evidence that explores and enriches these framing stories.   Everyone agreed that the workshops were an exciting step forward in the comparative research.

The REPs, CEP and other material will provide the foundation for six ELLA Learning Alliances that are planned for mid-2016.  Details of the Alliances will be circulated in March.

Mark Lewis, ELLA Programme Director

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