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Statistics Without Borders at the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative Retreat

1 July 2013 173 views No Comment

Tunisia. Haiti. Azerbaijan. Cambodia. Burundi. These are just a few of the emerging or fragile democracies in which the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) works to improve access to justice, uphold human rights, and strengthen legal institutions. Achieving such ambitious goals often requires years of patient slogging through incremental successes and setbacks. It also presents special challenges for monitoring and evaluating project outcomes and impacts.

Recognizing this, the ABA ROLI staff recently turned to Statistics Without Borders and the AAAS On-call Scientists for assistance. In response to a call for volunteers, six statisticians served as consultants during a recent ABA ROLI staff retreat in Washington, DC:

Art Kendall is a retired political psychologist, a mathematical statistician, an active member of the Council for AAAS’s Science and Human Rights Coalition, and member of the ASA’s Committee on Scientific Freedom and Human Rights.

David Morganstein is an ASA Fellow and director and vice president at Westat.

Romesh Silva is a demographer who, in addition to consulting with the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, serves on the ASA’s Committee on Scientific Freedom and Human Rights.

Fritz Scheuren is an ASA Fellow and vice president at NORC in the Center for Excellence in Survey Research. He was ASA president in 2005.

Norean Sharpe is undergraduate dean and an adjunct professor of statistics at Georgetown University.

Zhiwei Zhang is a senior survey statistician and executive research and statistical consultant.

Ahead of the meetings, each regional team sent the pro bono statisticians information about one of their projects, including the current monitoring and evaluation plan. Then, during the retreat, each team had the opportunity to dialogue with their assigned statistician, ask questions, and gain ideas about ways to strengthen their methodologies and data collection.

Before the sessions, some staff expressed concerns that because their projects are implemented in ever-changing environments, statistics would be too constraining and impractical. Others asked questions about starting data collection when a project is already under way. Participants also asked whether the benefits of implementing rigorous methodologies outweighed the additional work for local partners with limited resources. Many work in countries where little administrative data are available or where potential survey participants are too afraid to respond to questions.

The statisticians offered “real-world” solutions to help address these challenges, drawing on previous experiences from other contexts. They suggested ways to make strategic decisions about research methods, including frames, samples, measurements, quality controls, and missing data and non-response. The statisticians also discussed cost-effective experiments, strategies when a control group is not feasible, the integrated use of administrative data and surveys, and avoiding and reducing survey errors and biases.

Jennifer Rasmussen, ABA ROLI regional director for Asia and the Pacific, appreciated the extensive experience of the volunteers, as well as the time they dedicated to understanding the intricacies of measuring rule of law programs. “I wish we had had more time to spend, since I think it presented interesting concepts and ways to look at data to demonstrate different program impacts,” said Rasmussen.

Michael McCullough, ABA ROLI regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean, agreed. “The expertise and experience were very much appreciated and a big help to us.”

According to Sharpe, “These sessions are a great way to donate your time and expertise to a group of professionals who can benefit from a tutorial in any number of statistical topics. They were a pleasure to work with.”

Zhang called the retreat a “wonderful and fruitful event.” He added, “For immediate, urgent project guidance, sessions like what the retreat can offer can be a quick and effective solution.”

The American Bar Association is a national organization of legal professionals and attorneys with nearly 400,000 members. While the sessions were too short to address all of the issues, they established the foundation for continued relations and new statistics and law partnerships. At the end of the day, both the workshop participants and the statisticians learned from each other. Several of the groups discussed future collaborations with the volunteers, including more in-depth training in statistics for staff.

This is just one example of how Statistics Without Borders and the AAAS On-call Scientists initiative are applying scientific methods, knowledge, and tools in one substantive area—understanding and addressing disparities in access to justice—and the service of human rights. If you are interested in getting involved, contact Cathy Furlong, chair of the New Projects Committee, at cathy.furlong@cox.net or Theresa Harris, with the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights, and Law Program, at tharris@aaas.org.

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