“Foundations” is an occasional series of informal question-and-answer sessions with employees and others affiliated with The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to give them an opportunity to explain their work.

Helena Choi is a program officer with the Foundation’s Population Program. She makes grants to support research into how population and reproductive health issues affect economic development and to train population scientists in Africa. For the past five years, before joining the Foundation in September 2009, Choi served as a program officer with Public Health Watch, a project of the Open Society Institute in New York City. There she made grants to non-governmental organizations that monitor and advocate for policies in the developing world that would encourage governments to meet their commitments to international health goals.

Choi has a bachelor’s degree in economics and English from Wellesley College and a master’s degree in public affairs in international development from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

Can you tell us a bit about how the Hewlett Foundation came to fund research into population and poverty?

Sure. Discussion of the relationship between population trends and economics goes back centuries, but it’s only in recent years that researchers have had the tools and understanding to explore how a country’s population trends relate to its economic development. The goal of the Foundation’s Population Program is to promote reproductive health and stabilize global populations in ways that improve people’s well-being, so supporting this work is natural for us.

We’re helping to fund about sixty-five research projects related to what we call “pop-pov,” or “population and poverty,” in several countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Most of these projects focus on the microeconomic level, or how these issues affect the lives of individuals and families, rather than the region or country. Some of them were launched as far back as 2005 and will be completed this year. Others are just getting under way. Joining us in funding this work are the research councils of four European countries: the French, Norwegians, British, and Dutch.

Would you describe some of the research?

For example, one project in Ghana examines whether poor maternal health, which often is related to reproduction issues, affects women’s  participation in the labor force and levels of household income.  Another study, conducted across many countries, looks at the effect of smaller families on various outcomes for children, such as the level of schooling they achieve.  Could it be that fewer siblings mean that children can stay in school longer because they are not needed to support the family?

We have commissioned grantees to conduct very focused national studies like this all across sub-Saharan Africa.

Then there are a few macro-level studies, not as many, that are looking more broadly at population dynamics and the impact that has on the economic growth of countries. We’re also working with economists to review the overall body of work – all the projects – and identify any major gaps. If there are any, we’ll commission additional research.

When is the research scheduled to be completed?

All told, there will be more than 60 research projects completed in the next three years in this current phase. The results of some are just beginning to come in, and we are confident that many of them will be of great value to policymakers. Anyone who has either conducted or funded research will tell you that these projects invariably take more time to complete than you envision, and this set of projects is no exception. That said, the vast majority of the projects are coming in within an acceptable time frame.

What’s happening to assure that the research won’t just sit on a shelf once it’s completed?

Last September we brought together policy experts, health and finance ministers, co-funders, and communications experts to start thinking about how we can communicate the results of this research. What are the goals of the work? Whom do we want to reach? We didn’t get to “how” yet, just the “who.” The important thing to us is that the research is used to inform government policy to improve people’s lives. That’s why we funded it. It’s not research for its own sake.

I think we need a multi-tier approach: first, we’ll work with ministers of finance and health and explain to them the implications of particular research. Then we’ll also pull together studies that address similar issues – say fertility and participation in the labor force. We’ll explore trends across the data to see if they point to solutions that are applicable across countries and perhaps even globally.

That’s the translation of the research that must start to happen. It’s going to take a lot of work. The people who make policy can’t be expected to know what the implications of raw research are, and researchers aren’t used to communicating in ways that policymakers understand.  Our meeting last fall was the first step in trying to bridge that divide.

What are the obstacles to government officials in developing countries adopting policies based on the research?

One challenge is that decisions about allocating government money for reproductive health are often made by planners within the ministries of finance. However, it’s the ministries of health that manage the programs, but they are not responsible for allocating funding. We need to work with both to make sustainable changes. And, of course, the politics of each country is a factor. Women’s health can be more controversial than road construction, for example. We need to help the elected officials see that working on these issues will help their country and that other people support it.

What does success look like?

Ultimately, we’d like financial resources for reproductive health expanded beyond what currently exists in health ministries, which often are underfunded. So more money is one factor. Adoption of better policies that reflect the research is another.

Finally, from a broader perspective, we’d like to see this overall body of research recognized within the literature of development economics.

We’re approaching an exciting crossroads. It’s too early to definitively say, “This is what we’ve found.” But as the answers begin to come in, we’re going to start assembling a broad range of partners who will make sure the evidence gets heard. Many people in the field are hungry for data they can use to improve policy. This year’s goal is to get the entire system in place to transform research into policy.