[Editor’s Note: Tanya Jones, Ph.D., recently joined R4D as a managing director. She will oversee half of R4D’s portfolio of programs alongside Cheryl Cashin, Ph.D., R4D’s other managing director. Dr. Jones will play a key role in refining and implementing R4D’s strategy.]
Hi, Tanya, welcome to R4D and thanks for making the time for this interview. We’re thrilled to have you on board. I understand you’ve spent more than 20 years working on global development issues. Can you tell me a little about what you drew you to the field?
Thank you for the warm welcome. I am excited to join the talented team at R4D.
Tanya: I was drawn to the field of international development as a child. At the age of 10, I traveled with my family to 12 countries in Western Europe, North Africa and East Africa for four months. We lived primarily with homestay families and learned first-hand about the history, economy and culture of these nations. This experience revealed to me the stark economic and health inequities — and their root causes — between the countries we visited. I began learning about foreign aid and economic development through conversations with my parents’ friends who were leading academics in their fields. At that early age, I set my sights on working alongside people across sub-Saharan Africa to address these inequities.
And what drew you to R4D? What appeals to you about our mission and strategy?
Tanya: I have great admiration for R4D’s values, achievements and approach. For over two decades, I have worked as an NGO practitioner and a foundation program officer to improve health and education outcomes for the most disadvantaged in low-income countries. R4D’s focus on systems strengthening and its strategy of supporting change agents to drive systems change aligns with my worldview. Additionally, R4D is composed of talented professionals who are deeply committed to equity and social change. I welcome the opportunity to help build R4D’s future programs and help implement its forward-looking strategy.
I understand you are a sociologist by training and have done research on institutional change. What have you learned from your research that is relevant for R4D as we work to support change agents successfully navigate complex system change processes?
Tanya: I have conducted academic and policy research on community health worker programs in Ethiopia, Ghana and Brazil. I have learned how the implementation of community health programs can greatly improve the health and well-being of a nation. This understanding has drawn me to study, in different settings, how country-level change agents can effectively institutionalize primary health care reform and scale-up community health innovations in partnership with the global development community.
My research has underscored the necessity for change agents to build a strong ecosystem of local and global champions to support the reform process. In addition, I have observed how the generation of political support for reforms at the highest level of government significantly improves the prospects for success.
Can you say more about the ecosystem that a change agent relies on to carry forward reforms? What does that look like? And what is the role of an organization like R4D in that ecosystem?
Tanya: I don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all characterization of the role or composition of an ecosystem in institutionalizing evidence-based reforms. In my research, and in practice, I have found that early collaboration between government leaders, researchers, the private sector and the global development community have enabled countries to achieve complex health policy reforms. To be successful, such partnerships must be transparent and trust-based with local change agents in the lead and with each actor leveraging their complementary capabilities. In addition, stakeholders must be cognizant that systems reform takes time; from the outset partners must commit themselves to support the change process over the long term. R4D can make an important contribution by accompanying change agents on this journey and help advance reform by offering expert analysis, coaching, stakeholder facilitation, and provision of global evidence to support systems change.
You also noted that political support for reforms at the highest level of government improves prospects for success. Is this something that an INGO like R4D can/should influence?
Tanya: R4D can be influential in the reform process by offering best-in-class technical support to change agents that chart pathways to reform based on evidence and informed by political economy.
For example, R4D supported the Indonesian government to address several challenges with its national health insurance program, Jaminan Kesehatan Nasional (JKN), including rising costs, poor quality of care, inequitable access to services and high maternal mortality rates. To ensure stakeholder buy-in, R4D advocated for an approach in which analytic research was embedded in a government-led process that was facilitated by a local academic institution (University of Gadjah Mada).
Under R4D’s guidance, the University created and executed a research plan and a government working group was convened every few months to review the research and examples of what’s been done in other countries. Ultimately, the University’s policy reform recommendations were incorporated into a presidential decree and strategic purchasing reforms were enacted curb costs and improve access and quality of care.
This process demonstrated how R4D puts country change agents at the center of the reforms the country was looking to make. R4D’s objective was to build the capacity of a local academic center to become a strategic purchasing resource center that could offer training to government institutions on strategic purchasing concepts and execute similar analytics in the future.
You’re joining R4D an important moment — as the world grapples with a devastating pandemic that has created serious and interrelated challenges in the health, education and nutrition sectors. How can/should an organization like R4D adapt to meet this moment?
Tanya: What a difficult time we are passing through. The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic are extensive and sobering. R4D’s expertise in health, education and nutrition enables us to support change agents to strengthen these systems now under the greatest strain. I see an opportunity for R4D to support leaders to address the damage the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought and achieve lasting impact. R4D has pivoted its work to support country leaders as they strengthen national immunization programs and we are also facilitating cross-country learning that will help accelerate COVID inoculation once vaccines become more readily available. In response to the widespread school closures, R4D is supporting change agents to more rapidly integrate technology into the education system through the EdTech Hub.
The events of the past year have also ramped up calls to decolonize aid and development. What is the role of an organization like R4D in this movement?
Tanya: This moment has prompted international development institutions to assess how the history of colonialism has led to the marginalization and exclusion of key actors in our work. I appreciate that R4D embraces a vision of development in which change agents drive their own agenda and develop solutions to system failures.
R4D can (and should) spur important dialogue within the international development community and especially with our funders about who is at the core of development, who is marginalized, and how we can transform the sector. R4D’s leadership team has incorporated the “decolonization of aid” agenda into our new strategy. We will have more to share on this in the coming months.
What are you looking forward to tackling at R4D in the coming months/year?
Tanya: I look forward to listening and learning more about R4D’s programs and approach. I am eager to become more acquainted with the talented team so critical to R4D’s success. I also look forward to working closely with the leadership team as R4D strives to support change agents in their response to the COVID pandemic.
Photo courtesy of Tanya Jones. Dr. Tanya Jones listens to a community health worker in Balaka, Malawi, describe his protocol for the management of childhood illness.